Why the UK government should care about Giulio Regeni

Ministers must ensure the death of a Cambridge PhD student in Cairo is properly investigated, say Hannah Waddilove and Neil Pyper

February 15, 2016
Giulio Regeni
Source: Rex
Giulio Regeni

There is still a lot that we do not know about the circumstances of the murder of our former colleague and friend Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge PhD student who went missing in Cairo on the evening of 25 January. The New York Times recently became the first prominent international media outlet to cite sources claiming that Egyptian police took Giulio into custody that night.

The Egyptian authorities deny that the state played any hand in Giulio’s death. However, there are details that are undisputed. Both the Egyptian and Italian autopsies tell us that Giulio was tortured - extensively, brutally and probably across several days. It is difficult to ignore the likelihood that whomever did this to Giulio knew - or was at least told - that he was an academic researcher from the University of Cambridge.

Was his murder a violation of academic freedom? We think so - but it is not a simple claim to make. Freedoms are not guaranteed. They must be defended. They are liberal ideals that lend themselves to individual polities far easier than they do across multiple societies, particularly when there are repressive governments.

In the UK, we exist in a society where academic freedom is a pillar of our higher education system. Academic freedom is often much more understated than its associated principle of press freedom. Yet its lack of public discussion should not diminish the importance of the very hard, methodologically robust work that thousands of professional researchers carry out. They produce knowledge that decision-makers rely on, and which challenge superficial understandings of the world.

This means that when students from British universities go to conduct field research overseas, the UK government should have a role in helping to guarantee that the respect for academic freedom across borders is upheld. In Giulio’s case, it is the government’s responsibility to respond when this is violated. The best way to ensure academic freedom, especially for researchers undertaking sensitive research in countries facing political and/or social instability, is for governments to respond robustly to incidents, insisting on full investigation and those responsible being held to account.

This is particularly important if British universities are able to maintain their global standing for cutting-edge research on multiple areas of the world. Often, some of the most innovative social science research is conducted in countries that are under-represented in the academy, least well understood by our societies, and where safety risks for researchers are highest. The response is not overzealous risk management to the extent that important and high-impact research is made impossible. 

Universities have a duty of care to their students that is upheld through rigorous ethics approval processes, but these have natural limits. Countries such as Egypt, where the risk of violence to researchers is present, need to know that governments will respond when harm befalls a student from one of their universities.

Importantly, Giulio is by no means the only scholar who has faced serious risks in Egypt, but his case has broader implications for academic freedom in the UK and beyond. As part of our effort as a society to protect academic freedom, particularly in countries where the risks of violence are real, we are asking for support for a petition to the UK parliament to ask to help ensure that Giulio’s case is subject to an independent and impartial investigation.

Hannah Waddilove is a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick. Neil Pyper is an academic and friend of Giulio Regeni.

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