Italy recalls ambassador from Egypt in protest over slain student

People attend a memorial for Giulio Regeni outside the Italian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, in a Feb 6, 2016, file photo.
People attend a memorial for Giulio Regeni outside the Italian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, in a Feb 6, 2016, file photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME (AFP) - Italy on Friday recalled its ambassador to Egypt for consultations in protest over the lack of progress in a probe into the fate of murdered Cambridge student Giulio Regeni.

The move came after two days of talks between Egyptian and Italian investigators in Rome ended without a resolution of tensions between the two countries over the fate of 28-year-old Regeni, whose tortured and mutilated body was discovered outside Cairo on Feb 3.

“Italy has undertaken a commitment with the Regeni family... that we would stop only once we get the truth,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said.

Egypt’s foreign ministry released a statement saying it had “not been officially notified” about the recall, adding that it “awaits the return of the investigative team to hear its evaluation of the meetings”.

It would then assess the situation and “there will be the necessary communications at the appropriate level,” foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid was quoted as saying.

A statement by the Rome prosecutor in charge of the case said that the Egyptians had handed over phone records of two of Regeni’s Italian friends who were in Cairo at the time of his disappearance, as well as photos taken on the day his body was discovered.

The statement made no mention of CCTV footage of the neighbourhood from which Regeni disappeared on January 25, which the Italians had asked to see, or whether Regeni was under surveillance prior to his abduction.

The Egyptian team indicated that they were still considering the possibility Regeni was abducted by an anti-foreigner criminal gang whose members all died in a police shootout last month.

The Italian prosecutor stressed his “conviction that there are no elements to directly link the gang to the torture and death of Giulio Regeni,” the statement said.

Egypt’s presentation of a theory that a criminal gang carried out the murder has been greeted with outraged scepticism in Italy and has helped fuel public anger over the case, putting intense pressure on Renzi to be seen to be getting tough with Cairo.

Italian officials suspect the student was killed by rogue elements in the Egyptian security services. Their Egyptian counterparts have so far maintained there is no basis for such claims.

With the case threatening to derail relations between two countries with major economic and strategic ties, the Egyptian team of two prosecutors and three senior police figures had flown to Rome in a bid to reassure their Italian counterparts that everything was being down to bring Regeni’s killers to justice.

Italy had warned this week of diplomatic retaliation if the perceived foot-dragging of the Egyptians continued.

Before the criminal gang theory was aired, Italian officials were variously told that Regeni had died in a car accident and that his death was linked to his personal life.

The withdrawal of the ambassador is unlikely to satisfy those who are demanding that Renzi send a strong signal of Italy’s anger over the case to Egypt’s military-backed president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Renzi has a close relationship with Sisi which has helped generate hugely valuable business contracts for Italian companies, particularly in the energy sector.

Italy is also counting on Egyptian cooperation if and when it leads an international peacekeeping force into Libya to try and stabilise its former north African colony.

Media coverage of the Regeni case has served as a focus for other disappearances and rights abuses in Egypt.

In terms of action, Italy’s options are limited.

Moves under consideration include a warning to its citizens against travel to Egypt but the Regeni case has already caused a slump in visitor numbers from Italy.

Italy is also considering asking for support from its EU partners to try and put pressure on the Egyptian government over the case.