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A Rome court has suspended the trial against four Egyptian security officials accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo, after hours of deliberation over whether it is fair that the men are tried in absentia.

The trial was sent back to a pre-trial court, after judges debated for seven hours whether the hearings could continue amid doubts they were aware of the lawsuits against them.

Regeni, a 28-year-old doctoral student, disappeared in Cairo on January 25, 2016 while researching Egyptian unions. His body was discovered on a Cairo ring road nine days later, showing signs of extreme torture and abuse.

Prosecutors have fiercely argued that the four defendants, all employees or former employees of the Egyptian National Security Agency, should be tried in absentia in Rome, after Egyptian authorities blocked efforts to formally notify the four men of the trial procedure.

A lower court will now resume attempts to contact the four defendants. Observers fear that the stay of the trial proceedings may effectively cancel the trial due to Egypt’s reluctance to cooperate.

“There was a strategy by the Egyptian National Security Agency to remove the four accused from Italian jurisdiction and protect them,” said Sergio Colaiocco, chief prosecutor in Rome.

Egyptian officials, prosecutors said, have ignored more than 30 official diplomatic requests and years of repeated requests by the Italian public prosecutor’s office to provide the men’s addresses, necessary to formally notify the defendants of the trials under the law. Italian.

General Tariq Saber, Colonel Aser Ibrahim, Captain Hesham Helmi and Major Magdi Abd al-Sharif are accused of the “aggravated kidnapping” of Regeni, who disappeared in January 2016 in Cairo while carrying out research on unions , a politically sensitive subject in the eyes of the Egyptian authorities. The four defendants face a sentence of up to eight years for kidnapping, while Sharif could face a life sentence for “conspiracy to commit aggravated murder”.

The cabinet of the Italian Prime Minister announcement He would join the efforts of state prosecutors and the Regeni family to try the four security officials the day before the hearing. Italy had previously said it would seek to extradite anyone convicted during the trial. The trial puts an end to years of diplomatic tension over the murder of the young researcher, despite recent measures, including arms sales, which have demonstrated warmer relations between the two countries.

The initial hearing took place in a cell-lined courtroom attached to a high-security facility built to try Mafia members. Prosecutors argued that efforts by Egyptian officials to ignore a barrage of requests for information from security officials about the trial followed years of efforts to guide Italian authorities in error and prevent any investigation into the murder. . Arguing that it was highly unlikely that four members of the Egyptian security state were unaware of the legal proceedings against them, they said the Egyptian authorities had deliberately sought to disrupt the trial by obstructing repeated efforts to contact men.

Italian prosecutors have previously said they are seeking to indict 13 other people, but the silence on the Egyptian side has prevented them from gathering enough evidence to do so. The trial represents a rare opportunity to hold the powerful Egyptian security services to account, which are accused by human rights groups of human rights violations.

“The Egyptian attitude was like a wall, a wall which did not allow us to investigate further,” said Francesco Romeo, prosecution lawyer. “We are talking about the authorities of a country who have tried in every way to hijack Italian procedures to find the truth, a systematic and organized way to avoid being involved in this whole story. It is illegal in Italy to distort police investigations.

A team of court-appointed lawyers representing each of the defendants argued that a trial in absentia was unfair and that the proceedings should be suspended until Italy could ensure that the defendants had admitted the trial or had officially refused to attend.

“It is not the National Security Agency that is on trial. We should not focus on whether the NSA has been informed [about proceedings], but if these four people had information and chose not to be here today voluntarily, ”Annalisa Ticconi, Sharif’s defense lawyer, said at the hearing. She said Italy risked European sanctions for its insistence on trying the men in absentia.

“Continuing this trial without ensuring that these men are informed does not make Italy different from Egypt,” said Tranquillino Sarno, representing Aser Ibrahim in court. “Without the collaboration of the Egyptian authorities, this trial cannot take place… You are witnessing a trial against Egypt.

Egypt closed its own investigation into Regeni’s murder in late 2020, saying the real killer is still unknown. Egyptian prosecutors attacked the Rome investigation in a statement soon after, saying the Italian side lacked evidence to convict the men and dismissing any involvement of their security officials in Regeni’s disappearance or murder.

Prosecutors argued that Egyptian authorities claimed Regeni was a spy, attempting to present his work and travels as politically suspect while falsifying vital video evidence and cell phone data requested by the Italian side.

They explained how Egypt has hampered Italian efforts to investigate Regeni’s murder since the day his body was found on a Cairo ring road in 2016. Alessandra Ballerini, who represents the Regeni family, described his injuries extensive, including broken bones, broken teeth, and carved letters. in his skin by his torturers.

One of the defendants, Aser Ibrahim, led the investigation into Regeni’s murder from the Egyptian side. “So they investigated themselves,” Colaiocco said.

Ballerini described how she was detained by the NSA and questioned upon arriving in Cairo in 2017 while working on the case, and how the Regeni family’s Egyptian legal team suffered years of abuse due to of its work, including the detention and torture of its members.

She added that at one point, pressure from within Egypt to thwart the investigation was so intense that NSA officials asked the Egyptian legal team to return their work to the NSA for inspection.

“They said they would not act as informants, and they were told there would be repercussions against them and their families,” she said. “When they asked what that meant, they said ‘ask Giulio’.”