UK academics defend Regeni's Cambridge tutor

Regeni protest

 ROME - As many as 250 academics have signed a letter in support of Giulio Regeni’s tutor, Maha Abdelrahman. The student was murdered and tortured in Cairo in early 2016 while working on a research project for the University of Cambridge.

 Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said “Giulio wanted to do research on independent trade unions for years, that is, before the coup d'état of 2013, and this topic was absolutely nit dangerous.” Achar met Regeni when he proposed his PhD dissertation on labour organisations, the subject that he was killed while researching.

 Achcar decided to sign the letter because of the strong criticism of Abdelrahman in Italian media, citing an article in Repubblica that he called “outrageous and denigrating a well respected professor.”

 "Any social scientist may prove that this is, in fact, the ideal research methodology for studying contemporary issues," continued Achcar, "despite a series of irrefutable clues clearly indicating the responsibility of the Egyptian police, the Republicca attempts to attribute part of the responsibility for Giulio's murder to Professor Abdelrahman.”

 Italian media has harshly criticised Cambridge for Regeni’s death. The sentiment that the student’s death was an unavoidable and unpredictable tragedy is very much not shared by many Italians who are eager for someone to be held accountable.

 The academics' stance is firm and clear. They feel that no blame should be placed on Cambridge or Regeni’s tutor as his death was a statistical anomaly. While this may be true, placing responsibility for this incredibly brutal and unwarranted murder on Egyptian Police, firstly, is made without proof or motive and, secondly, does not explain why this nullifies Cambridge and Abdelrahman’s alleged involvement in the situation.

 The letter stipulates that the professor did not order Regeni to research the topic and that she did not know that it was dangerous. Both statements are true, yet, this has done nothing to quell those voices who say that it was her job to know the dangers involved.

 Neil Pyper wrote that “in order to carry out this research, generations of scholars have conducted fieldwork in other countries, often with authoritarian political systems or social unrest making them dangerous places to study.” Pyper’s statement is a  valid comment and quite a separate argument from the letter that seemingly puts forward the notion that Regeni’s research and journalistic works, critical of the state, was very unexpectedly unsafe.

The full letter is as follows:

 We, the undersigned, categorically reject the malicious and totally unfounded allegations made against Dr Maha Abdelrahman in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on 2 November 2017. Dr Abdelrahman, an internationally highly-regarded scholar at Cambridge University, was the supervisor of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, who was conducting research on Egyptian independent trade unions when he was abducted, tortured and murdered in early 2016. There is overwhelming evidence that strongly implicates the Egyptian security forces in Giulio's murder. Indeed, Declan Walsh, the Cairo correspondent of the New York Times, wrote in August 2017 in a detailed account that the US had 'incontrovertible evidence of official Egyptian responsibility', but was unable to make the evidence public without compromising their source.

 Despite a cumulative body of facts pointing clearly to the Egyptian police, La Repubblica attempts to apportion some of the blame for Giulio's murder to Dr Abdelrahman. The article lists the following questions that the Italian prosecutor wants to put to Dr Abdelrahman: 1. Who chose the specific theme of Giulio's research? 2. Who chose the tutor to supervise Giulio's fieldwork in Cairo? 3. Who chose the participatory research study method that Giulio pursued? 4. Who devised the research questions that were posed to the street vendors whom Giulio was interviewing? 5. Did Giulio submit the results of his research to Dr. Abdelrahman?

 While we understand that some of these questions could be relevant to the Italian investigation, we find La Repubblica's tendentious summary and analysis of them to be deliberately misleading. For example, La Repubblica alleges that Dr Abdelrahman 'commissioned' Giulio to work on a topic that she knew was dangerous and that he was reluctant to pursue. Furthermore, that she was the one who chose Giulio's research topic, research methods, research subjects and research questions for him.

 We find these allegations absurd. They betray a fundamental ignorance of internationally-recognised procedures in applying for and undertaking a PhD. Academic supervisors do not choose their PhD students; rather, it is the students who choose them. PhD supervisors do not impose their research agendas on unsuspecting students; the students, usually, work on a particular research area for some time before undertaking a PhD and then look for a supervisor in that area. In Giulio's case, he had been interested in independent trade unions for years and had already worked in Egypt before he even approached Dr Abdelrahman to be his supervisor. On the issue of the participatory research method employed by Giulio, any social scientist could tell you that it would be the method of choice in investigating contemporary issues.

 These and other allegations in the article are characterised by wilful ignorance, misrepresentation and distortion as well as pure invention and basic lies. Moreover, there is no way that Dr Abdelrahman, or anyone else, could have anticipated what happened to her student. The most egregious outcome that any foreign researchers in Egypt could have feared at the time of Giulio's disappearance was deportation. Relying on hindsight, La Repubblica is insinuating that Giulio's tragedy could have been foreseen. This is unequivocally not true.

 A final important point on which La Repubblica is incorrect. Dr Abdelrahman has NOT refused to talk to the Italian authorities. At Giulio's funeral in February 2016, she was interviewed for one and a half hours by the Italian prosecutor. On 15 June 2016, she answered in writing many supplementary questions posed by the Italian prosecutor, and indicated that she was happy to answer any further questions. There was no further communication with the Italian authorities until recently when they put in the request referred to in La Repubblica's article. In response, Dr Abdelrahman willingly agreed to be interviewed again.

 Giulio was not the author of his own tragedy. Nor was Dr Abelrahman responsible for his death in any way, shape or form. The responsibility for the abduction, torture and death of this bright Cambridge student falls squarely on the Egyptian regime. And it behoves serious investigative journalists to shine their light where the real darkness lies," the academics said.