Egyptians thought Regeni was British spy, Italian court told

Regeni murder trial in Rome

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Egyptian police detained an Italian student in Cairo because they thought he was a British spy, taking him to a security facility where he was tortured and murdered, an Italian prosecutor told a Rome court on Monday.

Italy has charged four Egyptian security agents with kidnapping and killing Giulio Regeni, a postgraduate student at Britain's Cambridge University, in Cairo in 2016.

The four men are being tried in absentia and have never responded publicly to the accusations. The Egyptian authorities have repeatedly denied any state involvement in Regeni's disappearance and death.

"The overall picture that has emerged is that of a web that slowly, between September 2015 and 25 January 2016, was tightened around Regeni by the defendants," prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco said, addressing the second hearing of the trial.

Regeni had been in Cairo to research Egypt's independent unions for his doctoral thesis, a sensitive issue in Cairo, and had struck up friendships with people who were secretly reporting back to the local security forces.

"Because of this activity, the defendants were erroneously convinced that Regeni was an English spy, sent to give financing to unions close to the Muslim Brotherhood," Colaiocco said.

The prosecutor said Regeni suffered "horrendous torture" over the period of a week and was then deliberately killed, adding that details of his suffering would be revealed in a subsequent session.

In all, the prosecution wants to call 73 witnesses, including 27 who live in Egypt. Colaiocco acknowledged that Italy would need the cooperation of the Egyptian police to serve papers on this group telling them that they had to appear.

It was not clear if the prosecution case would be fatally undermined if Egyptian witnesses did not testify.

Italian and Egyptian prosecutors initially investigated the case together, but came to different conclusions, with Egypt blaming the killing on a group of gangsters after initially suggesting he had died in a road accident or in a sex attack.

The case has strained diplomatic ties between Italy and Egypt, but in a sign that relations are returning to normal, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni travelled to Cairo on Sunday as part of a European delegation that signed a multi-billion-euro "strategic partnership" with Egypt.

Italy's main centre-left opposition party, the Democratic Party (PD) denounced the visit. "We would not strike deals with regimes like the one in Egypt that for years has been shielding the killers of Giulio Regeni, PD leader Elly Schlein said.

(Reporting by Marco Carta; Editing by Sharon Singleton)