CAIRO (AP) — The Egyptian police officer leading the investigation into the torture and killing of an Italian student in Egypt was himself convicted in 2003 in the torture and strangling of a detainee, receiving a one-year suspended sentence, according to court records and lawyers involved in that case.
Maj. Gen. Khaled Shalaby is the chief of the criminal investigation division in Giza, the district of the Egyptian capital where the Italian, Giulio Regeni, vanished on the evening of Jan. 25 as he headed to meet a friend in downtown Cairo. On that day, police were out on force to quash any sign of protests to mark the anniversary of the 2011 uprising.
Nine days later, Regeni's body was found dumped on the outskirts of Cairo with marks of torture including cigarette burns, stab wounds and a broken neck.
Italian state TV has said Italian investigators were told by a witness that two men, apparently plainclothes police — stopped Regeni and escorted him away as he left his apartment. Egypt's Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, has denied any police role in his death and on Monday it repeated denials that Regeni was ever arrested. It said its investigators are working "in full collaboration" with Italy.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Monday that Rome would evaluate progress Cairo to verify that it has received full cooperation. "It is clear that we will not be satisfied with easy reconstructions and convenient truths," he said.
Shalaby's conviction and light sentence — and his consistent promotions ever since — underscore what Egyptian and international human rights groups have long said is the widespread use of torture by the security forces and the impunity they enjoy. In December, more than a dozen Egyptian rights groups issued a statement saying police appear to have "free rein to abuse citizens using ... torture, forced disappearances." Still, cases of torture and death of Westerners by police are almost unheard of.
The government and Interior Ministry deny torture is systematic, saying there have only been isolated cases.
When reached by The Associated Press and asked about the previous conviction and any impact on the current investigation, Shalaby replied, "I have no comment."
Gamal Eid, a prominent rights lawyer, said Shalaby's record raises questions about the "outcome of the investigation" into Regeni's death.
Shalaby's conviction goes back to a case in September 1999, when he was a police lieutenant colonel in the Montazah district of the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria.
He and three other officers were accused of torturing to death Farid Shawqi Abdel-Al, a man they had detained on suspicion of breaking into and robbing a house, according to court documents obtained by the AP and two lawyers who represented Abdel-Al — Tarek Khater, who works for the Human Rights Center for Assisting Prisoners, and Mahmoud Albakry Alafifi.
The accused officers claimed that during his arrest, Abdel-Al wrested away from them and beat his own head against a metal pole, threatening to commit suicide if they detained him, and later died of his injuries, according to the court documents.
A lower court first acquitted the four, but prosecutors appealed, and in January 2003 the Cassation Court ordered a retrial. In the second trial, Shalaby and two others were convicted and the fourth was acquitted. One of the three was also convicted of falsifying records concerning the timing of his arrest to support their story.
Police officers forced the family to hurriedly bury the body under guard by security forces, according to prosecution documents. But prosecutors had the body disinterred and the autopsy found Abdel-Al had been beaten on his face with fists and a heavy object and was strangled by hand, the documents say.
Torture was a "shortcut" often used by police, Alafifi told the AP. To close a case quickly, an officer "brings a suspect and tortures him to extract a confession regardless of whether it's the truth or not."
Shalaby and the other two officers were given a suspended sentence of one year in prison. The court justified the suspension — which meant they served no prison time and had no consequences to their jobs — by saying it wanted to give the officers the chance to return to "correct behavior." It said their "history" and the circumstances of the crime "gave an impression that they won't violate the law again," without elaborating.
"This is why torture is rampant and officers get away with it," said Khater, who was leading the rights center in representing Abdel-Al.
Eid, the rights lawyer, said the Egyptian legal system doesn't classify torture as an "act against honor," meaning it does not affect their right to hold government or police positions.
Shalaby was consistently promoted, eventually becoming chief investigator in the southern province of Assiut for a year before being transferred to Giza last year, where he was promoted to the chief of criminal investigations in December. He was praised in the media at the time for his successes in dismantling criminal organizations and terrorist cells.
Rights lawyer Ahmed Mamdouh said that Shalaby was on a "black list" by rights organizations of dozens of police officers linked to abuses.
Mamdouh pointed to a case in 2010, when Shalaby arrested Youssef Shaaban, a young journalist in Alexandria, and accused him of drug possession. Prosecutors investigated the case and dropped the charges.
Mamdouh, who works with Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, and other rights lawyers held a brief hunger strike in protest, accusing Shalaby of fabricating the charges to silence Shaaban.
The journalist had joined demonstrations in support of Khaled Saeed, an Alexandrian youth who in 2010 was beaten to death by police outside a cafe. Police initially claimed that Saeed suffocated to death after trying to swallow drugs during his arrest — until photos emerged of his body showing his face brutally disfigured by beating.
Associated Press writer Sam Magdy contributed to this report.