Cambridge Amnesty International criticises government response to Regeni case

Sam Harrison 21 May 2016

The Cambridge City group of Amnesty International has condemned the response of the British government to the killing of Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge PhD student whose body was found in Egypt bearing marks of torture.

The remarks were delivered in the Friends’ Meeting House on Jesus Lane, in a room whose walls were adorned with placards reading ‘Truth for Giulio’, along with the Italian translation, ‘Veritá per Giulio’, and with the names of journalists currently imprisoned without trial in Egypt.

The meeting included five speakers: Nadine Haddad, a researcher for Amnesty International; Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge; Keith Bowie, from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ); Priscilla Mensah, president of CUSU; and Waseem Yaqoob, a member of the Cambridge research staff and representative from the Universities and Colleges Union.

The most vocal critic of the government was Zeichner, who professed himself “quite shocked” by the inadequacy of the government’s response. He spoke of raising the issue in a debate in Parliament six weeks ago and receiving a promise from Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Tobias Ellwood that he would shortly visit Egypt to discuss the matter with its government. That visit, Zeichner said, never took place.

He said that it was “a disrespect” to Regeni that “the government is not taking it more seriously”, calling its response “profoundly disappointing”.

Asked by an audience member whether the government was acting slowly as a result of normal democratic procedures or due to a will to stall, Zeichner replied that he did not know, but described the response he had received as “evasive” and suggested that “there are strong reasons for being suspicious”. He asserted that the government has “a moral duty… and a political duty” to handle the Regeni case more actively.

The other speakers made their own criticisms of the government’s response to the Regeni case. Bowie condemned the government response as “absolutely woeful”, and Mensah said that it was “full of contradictions”. Haddad spoke extensively about the political barriers to effective Italian and British interventions in the investigation, highlighting investments of large firms in those countries, including British Petroleum, British Gas, and Vodafone, and also their reliance on Egypt to stabilise neighbouring Libya.

There were strong words also for the Egyptian government, which Haddad castigated for its “great reluctance” to investigate Regeni’s death and accused of trying to bury the story. Zeichner criticised Egypt’s treatment of prisoners and its failure to pursue a path towards democracy, and alleged that the current régime is more oppressive than that of Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt who was overthrown in 2011. Yaqoob condemned the Egyptian government’s “narrative of brutality, cover-up and contradiction”.

Haddad’s speech mostly concerned the use of torture of Egypt and how it relates to cases like Regeni’s. At one particularly moving moment, she said “It has been over one hundred days since Giulio died, and yet we still do not know exactly what happened to him.” She placed the case in the context of Egypt’s current conditions, in which each month there are 90-100 ‘enforced disappearances’, whereby the state refuses to acknowledge the arrest or abduction of an individual by their agents. She announced that next month Amnesty will produce a report on the use of torture in Egypt.

Bowie stated that Regeni’s fate was ”symptomatic” of current conditions in Egypt, which has also been cracking down on journalists. He announced that the NUJ has adopted a national policy of seeking justice for Giulio Regeni, and will begin to lobby parliamentarians.

Mensah also made a similar announcement, saying that CUSU has committed itself to the policy of supporting all attempts in Cambridge to secure justice for Regeni. She argued that Regeni’s case has implications for academic freedom, saying “this about students in the UK… going out into the world and having the right to study and being safeguarded while doing so.”

She also linked the government response to the investigation to its controversial Prevent strategy and policies regarding the admission of foreign students to UK universities, arguing that the government is becoming increasingly unfriendly towards “difference” in higher education and suggesting that it is “almost as if because Giulio was not British”, the government was less concerned with protecting him.

All five speakers exhorted attendees of the meeting to keep the Regeni case in the public eye through protests, events, and lobbying. Zeichner expressed optimism that progress would be made in uncovering the circumstances surrounding Regeni’s death, urging the audience to “keep up the campaigning, keep up the pressure” in order “to drag the truth from the Egyptian government”.

One audience member expressed his disapproval for the response of the university, calling the failure of its Vice-Chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz to make a vocal condemnation of Egypt’s authorities “very disappointing”. Borysiewicz cancelled a planned visit to Egypt earlier in the year, but has made no public comment on the investigation.