Giulio Regeni, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, was a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo, researching on trade unions and labour rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. He was of Italian origin, but had an international background which made him a citizen of the world. On the 25th January, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, Giulio was supposed to meet his friends near Tahrir square. He never got there. His body was found five days later in a ditch, half-naked from the waist down, with clear signs of torture (stab wounds, cigarette burns, mutilation): evidence of what was a non-accidental, slow death.
As the Italian and Egyptian authorities proceed with a supposedly joint investigation, we cannot help but wonder: How is this possible? How can we accept this horror? Giulio had moved to Egypt for academic purposes, doing research on the field on what was his expertise. The circumstances of his murder suggest that he was killed because of his ideas, that is, because of his decision to pursue his studies even if that meant living in a difficult environment.
As Angelo Martelli, PhD student at the London School of Economics, powerfully commented, “Giulio has paid the price of someone who believed that knowledge has no borders and that academic research in order to flourish needs to be truly free. (..) With Giulio’s murder academic research has also been assassinated, because we are depriving academia of its core idea of universitas, of a community of scholars without borders, where minds are challenged to discover new knowledge and contribute to the welfare of a broader society. A community where freedom of thought is elevated to its highest level without the fear of being persecuted for your ideas or discriminated on the basis of culture, religion or ethnicity. (…) Giulio was an example of a young free man who does not give up, who follows his instinct for knowledge and finds his sense of fulfilment by contributing with his research work.”
Now not only do we find this terrible loss hard to process, but we are more than concerned about the ramifications this event has in terms of freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of expression. As The Guardian recalls, Giulio’s death ‘is not the first incident of a foreign national dying in suspicious circumstances on Egyptian soil’. Thus my first appeal goes to Egypt to provide better security for its national and international citizens. But what if, as many have suggested, the Egyptian government or its institutions are to some extent responsible for this death? Should that be the case, then the same appeal goes to the international community: we cannot let our people be killed in such a dramatic and terrible way. If it is true that pursuing one’s research in sensible topics may carry the risk of travelling to unsafe areas, this cannot entail torture and death. It is simply not acceptable.
Giulio, we will remember you as a person who followed his dreams and interests and was not afraid of doing that, raising up your voice in search for a deeper knowledge. At the same time, as we keep on affirming, when terrorism and extremism bring horror and death, this tragic event should not represent an obstacle to those of us willing to explore the world and continue our work, whether it is for academic purposes or not.
We believe in freedom, and we want justice.