CAIRO – It was a brutal killing that became an international incident: An Italian graduate student disappeared from the streets of the Egyptian capital in January, his body discovered days later dumped by a roadside, tortured to death.
The death of Guilio Regeni quickly poisoned ties between Egypt and Italy, where suspicions were high that Egyptian police — who have long been accused of using torture and secret detentions — snatched the 28-year-old and killed him. Egyptian officials — as high up as the president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in a national address — have denied any police role, but in the months since the slayings, the Italian government has hiked the pressure for answers.
Then last month came a surprise twist. Egyptian police announced they had killed a gang of five Egyptian men they said specialized in kidnapping and robbing foreigners and, while searching the gang leader's sister's home, came upon Regeni's passport. Government media proclaimed that Regeni's killers had been found.
The claim was immediately dismissed by Italian officials as not credible, with some Italian media calling it an outright cover-up. Even the editor-in-chief of Egypt's top government newspaper, Al-Ahram, wrote that Egyptian authorities had to get serious about uncovering the truth and that such "naive stories" about Regeni's death were only hurting the country.
Now accounts from witnesses and family members interviewed by The Associated Press raise further questions about the official version of the March 24 shooting in a wealthy suburban enclave outside Cairo. The Interior Ministry said security forces hunting for the gang stopped their minibus and the men opened fire on them, prompting a gunbattle in which all five were killed.
But witnesses say the men were unarmed and tried to flee as police fired on them, and that afterward police confiscated footage from security cameras near the scene. The men's relatives say they were house painters merely heading to a job in the suburb, Tagammu al-Khamis, when they were killed.
"I am accusing the Interior Ministry of trying to cover-up their wrong deeds by killing my family," said Rasha Tareq Saad, whose husband, brother and father were among those killed. "I want my family's rights."
The AP spoke to six witnesses in Tagammu al-Khamis as well as six relatives and lawyers of the slain men. No video footage from the shooting has emerged, so their accounts could not be independently verified. A number of other family members have been arrested, and their lawyers say they have not been allowed to see investigators' reports on the shooting.
Asked about their accounts, Interior Ministry spokesman Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim said he was not authorized to comment and referred questions to the prosecutor-general investigating the case. Repeated calls to the prosecutor-general's office went unanswered. A series of visits to the forensic agency, security headquarters in Cairo and the Tagammu al-Khamis police station were also unfruitful: Officers and prosecutors refused to speak to the AP.
The shooting adds a new layer to the mystery surrounding Regeni's slaying. The Italian Ph.D. student vanished after leaving his apartment on Jan. 25, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. It was a tense day: Police were out in force to prevent demonstrations commemorating the day, and in the preceding days dozens of activists had been arrested.
Regeni had been researching the labor movement, a sensitive subject in Egypt since labor activists are frequently protest organizers, and security agents are known to monitor activities by foreign researchers. The Interior Ministry has denied that police detained Regeni, and authorities have offered various possible scenarios for his death, including a personal dispute or a robbery. The day Regeni's body was found a top police official said he died in a car accident, until investigators reported the extensive signs of torture, including cigarette burns, broken bones and bruises from beatings.
The announcement about the gang is the closest that authorities have come to an explanation for Regeni's slaying. However, since the Italian reaction — including Rome withdrawing its ambassador from Cairo — Egyptian officials have avoided claiming the culprits have been found. In a speech this month, el-Sissi angrily rejected accusations that police were behind the Italian's death but he made no mention of any gang involvement. Abdel-Karim, the Interior Ministry spokesman, has said the gang was "a new variable" but that Regeni's death was still under investigation.
There has been no explanation of how the men allegedly obtained Regeni's passport if they were not his killers.
Two witnesses told the AP the five men were not armed. They said seven police vehicles surrounded the minibus they were riding in and opened fire on it around 6 a.m. As police sprayed the vehicle with bullets, several men jumped out and ran, only to be gunned down "in cold blood," one of the witnesses said.
Afterward, police confiscated footage from security cameras at nearby houses, said the two witnesses as well as four others who saw the aftermath of the shooting. The bodies were left in the street for around 10 hours, the witnesses said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The slain men included three members of a single family — 62-year-old Tareq Saad, his son Saad and his son-in-law Salah Ali — along with a family friend, Mustafa Bakr and the minibus driver, 26-year-old Ibrahim Farouk.
Announcing their deaths, the Interior Ministry said the five had criminal records and claimed their gang had been posing as policemen to abduct and rob foreigners. It listed a string of nine robberies in the past months they were allegedly involved in — though none of the cases were listed as involving kidnappings.
Their relatives acknowledge all except the younger Saad had past offenses but nothing involving theft. Tareq Saad and Ali were jailed for two years in the mid-2000s for impersonating police officers, after they were arrested at a checkpoint for carrying a police ID card, said Tareq Saad's son, Sameh. Later, he said, the two were jailed for drug possession.
Bakr served 15 years in prison for drug offenses, according to his ex-wife's uncle, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Rasha Saad, Ali's wife and Tareq Saad's daughter, said police were well acquainted with the family and often raided their homes in the lower-class Cairo district of Shubra al-Kheima after the men's release from prison.
She said her husband was a house painter and got a call from a client to paint a villa in Tagammu al-Khamis, and she showed the AP photos of past jobs he'd done. She said she suspected her husband was secretly having an affair so she asked her father and brother to go with him, along with Bakr, a friend of her father.
Sameh Saad, who went to the morgue with his sister to identify the bodies, said he was shocked by the injuries. All five were riddled with bullet wounds and "the heads were blown up so much you could see the bones of the skull," he said.
Later that day, police searched the house of one of Tareq Saad's sisters and said they found Regeni's passport, his university ID and other items in a bag decorated with the Italian flag. They arrested Tareq Saad's wife, one of his brothers and the sisters, along with her husband and son, on suspicion of hiding stolen goods. Days later, police arrested Bakr's ex-wife and her two sons, witnesses said.
Police photos of the bag's contents showed a man's black wallet, a woman's pocketbook with the word "love" on it, a watch and several pairs of sunglasses. Rasha Saad said the pocketbook belonged to her mother and the watch to her brother, Sameh. The wallet was her husband's and he carried it at all times, she said, causing her to suspect it was planted along with the other possessions. "They took the wallet from his jeans and put it in the bag," she said.
The siblings said their father, brother and Ali were in the Nile Delta region of Sharqiya on Jan. 25, the day that Regeni disappeared in Cairo.
Choking back tears, Ali's mother, Umm al-Hassan, said, the police killed her son "and now they are the ones investigating the case. Everything is in their hands. They control everything."
It appeared the driver, 26-year-old Farouk, had little connection to the other men. While the authorities quickly announced the identities of the four men, they initially listed the fifth as "unknown," until days later when they identified him as a gang member as well.
A lawyer for Farouk's family, Abdel-Wahab Youssef, told the AP that he had been refused access to forensic reports or investigation documents in the case.
"The secrecy of the investigation raises suspicions. They tell me these are instructions from the top prosecutor," he said.