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Italy Says 5 Egyptian Security Officials Are Suspects in Student’s Death

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Italy Says 5 Egyptian Security Officials Are Suspects in Student’s Death

CAIRO — Italian prosecutors said Tuesday that five Egyptian security officials are suspects in the killing of an Italian student in Cairo nearly three years ago.

The announcement signaled a major escalation of tensions over a meandering investigation that has vexed relations between Italy and Egypt since early 2016, when Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student at Cambridge, was found dead on a roadside bearing marks of extensive torture.

The five suspects, whose names were not formally announced by prosecutors, work for Egypt’s National Security Agency, and are thought to have followed Mr. Regeni and secretly taped him after his arrival in the country in late 2015.

The decision by Italy to publicly identify them as suspects was made after a meeting between Italian and Egyptian officials in Rome last week. Pressure increased in recent days as the Italian Parliament severed its relations with Egypt’s legislature, and Egypt’s ambassador to Italy was summoned to discuss the case.

The fate of Mr. Regeni remains a national preoccupation in Italy that can still command front-page attention. Rights groups say the case highlights the brutal methods employed by Egypt’s security services.

The Egyptian government did not immediately respond to the prosecutors’ announcement, but it had already rejected Italian efforts to place its officials under investigation. “Charges should be based on evidence and not suspicions,” the State Information Service said on Sunday in a statement prompted by Italian news reports.

The suspects are already known to the Egyptian authorities, Italian officials said. Prosecutors mentioned the five in a 70-page police report delivered to Cairo last year. They were interrogated by Egyptian officials several times this year, but did not provide useful information or convincing answers, a senior Italian investigator said.

“We had to give a strong signal at this point,” said the investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “We couldn’t wait any longer.”

Still, Italian officials admit they have limited leverage over Egypt, which will decide the fate of the five suspects, all male employees of one of Egypt’s powerful main security agencies.

And even if they were brought to trial, it is unclear whether they would be held responsible for the torture and killing of Mr. Regeni, who was in Egypt to research labor unions for his thesis at Cambridge University in Britain.

The National Security Agency officers followed Mr. Regeni after his arrival in Cairo, but Italian and American officials believe that one of Egypt’s two other major security agencies, both of which have close ties to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, may also have played a role in his death.

One of those agencies, Military Intelligence, was once led by Mr. Sisi and has grown immensely powerful since he came to power in a 2013 military takeover. The other, the General Intelligence Directorate, is led by a longtime loyalist of the president and is dominated by Mr. Sisi’s son Mahmoud el-Sisi.

The five suspects identified by Italian prosecutors occupy much lower positions in Egypt’s security apparatus. Nonetheless, the Italian announcement is at least a notable shift in the tone of an investigation that has always been troubled by delays and dead ends.

In March 2016, Egyptian officials faced accusations of a botched cover-up after the Cairo police shot and killed five men they had accused of killing Mr. Regeni. Italy rejected that explanation, even after the Egyptian police produced Mr. Regeni’s passport, which they said had been found in an apartment of one of the dead men, — indirect proof, Italian officials said, that the true culprits were with Egyptian security.

Italian patience with the dragging investigation appeared to run short last week, after a meeting in Cairo between Egyptian and Italian prosecutors.

The two sides discussed surveillance footage from the station where Mr. Regeni was believed to have disappeared in January 2016. After Egypt handed over the footage in May, Italian officials were dismayed to discover that the portions where Mr. Regeni might have been present had been erased.

At the meeting in Cairo, the Egyptians showed their Italian counterparts an email from a Russian engineer explaining that the frames in question had been overwritten by later surveillance recordings. The same day, the Rome Prosecutor’s Office said it would issue an order to put National Security Agency suspects under investigation.

On national television in Italy, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Roberto Fico, called the move “fair, strong and courageous,” and announced that Parliament was breaking ties with its Egyptian counterpart. Shortly after that, Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi summoned the Egyptian ambassador, Hisham Badr, and urged the Egyptian government to act quickly and show “tangible progress” in the investigation, according to a statement.

Since coming to power in June, Italy’s populist coalition government has vowed to press Mr. Regeni’s case. The deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini, who leads the League Party, and Luigi Di Maio, who leads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, met separately with Mr. Sisi in Cairo over the summer. Both said the Egyptian president had repeated earlier assurances of full cooperation in the investigation.

In practice, though, Egyptian officials often seem concerned with tangential matters. In its statement on Sunday, the State Information Service questioned whether Mr. Regeni’s visa was in order at the time of his death because he had entered Egypt on a tourist visa.

Mr. Regeni’s supporters dismissed the issue as another attempt to muddy the waters. “It’s just another delaying tactic,” said Paz Zárate, a lawyer and friend of Mr. Regeni. “The Egyptians tried to blame Giulio many times for things that were irrelevant or invented. He would never do anything illegal.”

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