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UWC-USA graduate’s death still a mystery

SANTA FE, N.M. — A graduate of the United World College-USA in tiny Montezuma outside Las Vegas, N.M., has become the subject of worldwide campaign – but for tragic reasons.

Giulio Regeni

Giulio Regeni, an Italian who completed the international baccalaureate school’s two-year program in 2007, was murdered in Egypt about 16 months ago. His body was found in a ditch on Feb. 2, 2016, nine days after he had disappeared. Regeni was a doctoral student at Cambridge University in England and was in Cairo for academic research on trade unions since the fall of former strongman president Hosni Mubarak.

The body showed evidence of torture – broken ribs, burns and cuts. The Italian interior minister said last year that an Italian autopsy indicated that Regeni, 28, suffered “inhuman, animal-like, unacceptable violence” before he died.

The murder and the Egyptian government’s continued failure to bring anybody to justice in the case – and suggestions that the government had a role in Regeni’s death or a cover-up – has become a cause célèbre, not only in Italy, but also around the world, straining relations between Italy and Egypt.

Mourners attend a vigil for slain Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, in front of the Italian embassy in Cairo, Egypt. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

The case made international headlines again just last month when Regeni’s parents called on Pope Francis to seek information about the killing of their son from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during a papal visit to Cairo.

Apparently, the pope did as requested, telling reporters during his flight back to Rome: “… From the Holy See, I have looked into this situation, also because Giulio’s parents asked me to do so. The Holy See has taken some steps. I will not say how or where, but we have taken some steps.”

The UWC-USA in Montezuma, founded in 1982 by industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer and part of a global system of schools in 17 countries, is now doing its part for the campaign that Amnesty International launched under the banner “Veritá per Giulio Regeni” – Truth for Giulio Regeni.

In his honor, UWC-USA has created The Giulio Regeni Alumni Award.

Jose-Pablo Salas Rojas, the college’s associate director of alumni relations, said the award is intended to recognize alumni who have displayed “their power to make a difference through the same kind of commitment and humanity” demonstrated by Regeni, and “whose accomplishments, affiliations and professional career honor the UCW mission.”

The Montezuma Castle of the United World College is about five miles outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

That mission includes bringing together students from around the world to use education as “a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” UWC-USA has about 250 students and its incoming class represents 99 nationalities.

Salas Rojas, from Costa Rica, is a 2006 graduate of UCW-USA, a year ahead of Regeni, whom he got to know as a student. After his own graduation, Salas Rojas visited Regeni in his northern Italy home town of Fiumicello.

“He was a very lively person,” Salas Rojas told me. “He was very curious to learn about people.” Giulio was also enthusiastic about languages and knew Arabic. “He loved Egypt and took many trips there to do his Ph.D.,” said Salas Rojas.

Regeni had a clownish side, loved cooking and “was an extremely loving human being,” he said. The Italian “was no extrovert, but he would really put himself on the line for anybody.”

“You could rely on him,” Salas Rojas said

“And he really did embody our mission … he took it on himself to carry out education as a force for change.”

Murder mystery

The questions about Regeni’s death start with the date of his disappearance after a routine text to his girlfriend – Jan. 25, 2016, the fifth anniversary of the commemorative date for the Egyptian revolution that brought huge crowds to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and led to Mubarak’s downfall.

Critics say the current Sisi government has cracked down on past anniversary gatherings and that police had been conducting raids to intimidate anyone planning to demonstrate in 2016. And unions – the topic of Regeni’s research – had helped spur the 2011 revolution.

Also, Regeni had written an article about a public trade union meeting in which he called the Sisi government “repressive” and said that “the fact that there are popular and spontaneous initiatives that break the wall of fear is significant and represent in and of themselves an important push for change, ” according to the British newspaper The Guardian.

Reuters has reported that, when he disappeared, Regeni was picked up by police, then taken to a Homeland Security compound, which the Egyptian government denies. The news service’s Cairo bureau chief had to leave the country after being threatened with prosecution. The New York Times quoted a witness who described seeing Regeni taken away by security officers and an official who said, “They figured he was a spy. After all, who comes to Egypt to study trade unions?”

Press accounts indicate that various murder theories floated by Egyptian officials – that Regeni was killed in a road accident, by a kidnapping gang or during a drug deal or a crime of passion – have fallen apart, and note that his case fits in with numerous instances of people disappearing while in custody of the Egyptian authorities. His murder has also been characterized internationally as an attack on academic freedom.

Recent developments

There has been no let up in debate over the case as the Italian government continues to press for more information. About a month ago, the office of Egypt’s prosecutor-general announced that it had handed over files and records in the case requested in March by a Rome prosecutor.

There’s even a new report in which an Egyptian tycoon suggests some other country interested in isolating Egypt is behind the murder. One quote from the interview: “Do you know what it means to have half a million Italian tourists disappear?” But Salas Rojas said, “It’s a clear human rights case at many levels.”

Giulio Regeni hugs Yolisa Nalule-Forster, from Uganda, when they were students at United World College in Montezuma, N.M. (Courtesy of UWC)

The first Giulio Regeni Alumni Award was given out at May’s graduation ceremony in Montezuma to alumnus Bhushan Tuladhar of Nepal, a leader in his country’s environmental movement and chief technical advisor for South Asia for UN-Habitat’s Urban Basic Services Branch, a United Nations program.

Salas Rojas said naming the award after Regeni is “a very small contribution to keep the spotlight on his case.”

“It’s the simplest thing we can do to keep the campaign alive.”