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Giulio Regeni, Egypt, and the deafening silence of Europe

Written by Catherine Gegout.

Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, disappeared in Cairo on 25 January, and was found dead with signs of torture on his body on 3 February. Giulio Regeni conducted research which contributed to our knowledge of social and global justice, the impact of civil movements on power structures before and during revolutions, the role of women in political activism, and the role of trade unions in providing living wages to citizens.

Over 4,600 academics worldwide asked the Egyptian authorities to ‘cooperate with an independent and impartial investigation into all instances of forced disappearances, cases of torture and deaths in detention during January and February this year, alongside investigations by criminal prosecutors into Giulio’s death, in order that those responsible for these crimes can be identified and brought to justice.’

Terror in Egypt

But the Egyptian government has said it would treat Regeni’s case ‘as if he were an Egyptian.’ The government does not have much credibility for human rights’ organisations both in and outside Egypt. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) said it was aware of 340 cases enforced disappearance in Egypt between August and November 2015, with a daily average of three cases. Amnesty International has shown that human rights activists, lawyers, political activists and independent journalists fear for their lives.

 Activist Mona Seif is under investigation. She tweeted that she advised foreign researchers not to visit Egypt, and she is said to have been accused of acting against the state and its economic interests. The government also decided in February to shut down the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. The Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, said that ‘it’s unconscionable for Egyptian authorities to shut down a clinic for torture victims, especially when Interior Ministry agents are committing rampant abuse of people in custody.’

Researcher Jean Lachapelle sees Giulio Regeni’s murder as the first deliberate police killing of a foreign researcher in Egypt. Europe has not condemned internal abuses. But it has a duty to react to the murder of Giulio Regeni.

Where is the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom must protect academic freedom. Some academics have argued that:

when students from British universities go to conduct field research overseas, the UK government should have a role in helping to guarantee that the respect for academic freedom across borders is upheld. In Giulio’s case, it is the government’s responsibility to respond when this is violated.

Where is the European Union?

Giulio Regeni’s case is not only about academic freedom. It is also about the responsibility of EU states to protect their citizens. Article 3 of the Directive on Consular Protection of 20 April 2015  says:

The values on which the Union is founded include solidarity, non-discrimination and respect for human rights; in its relations with the wider world the Union should uphold its values and contribute to the protection of its citizens.

The British, French and German governments are silent. All other EU governments, with the exception of Italy, are silent. The webpage of the EU delegation in Egypt does not have one mention of Giulio Regeni. The EU High Representative merely said on 12 February that ‘Italy has the whole of Europe “at its side” in its bid to find the murderers of Giulio Regeni.’ She added that she had met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and told him of the ‘very great concern of all Europe for what happened to Giulio in Cairo, and our expectation that full light is shed (on his death).’

The European Parliament stated on 10 March that it:

remains dismayed by the demure public reaction of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the EU Member States to the systematic crack-down on the entire Egyptian human rights movement, which falls short of the EU’s commitments, notably under the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders.

It is calling for the suspension of any form of security cooperation and assistance with Egyptian authorities. However, until now, more than a month after Giulio Regeni’s murder, neither the High Representative nor EU states have reacted to these requests. This is happening at a time when France and the United Kingdom are wanting to lift the European Union Council position calling on states not to export weapons to Egypt.

The end of research

The case of Giulio Regeni poses a threat to research in Egypt. Other journalists and academics have been harassed by the Egyptian government for being a ‘threat to Egyptian national security.’ If silence is the response to torture and murder of an EU citizen, then EU states and the European Union no longer abide by EU rules, and this means that no one is protected by its own state when conducting research abroad, whether in conflict areas or in ‘allied’ states.

For Giulio Regeni, Egyptians, and all researchers, and for truth, justice, accountability, the protection of human rights and education, a petition to the British Parliament can be signed here:

Catherine Gegout is a Lecturer in International Relations. A previous version was published in Italian on Huffington Post Italy. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inArab SpringEUEuropean PoliticsMiddle East & North Africa

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