Cairo court expels diplomats from hearing on Regeni adviser

The decision followed a chaotic courtroom hearing that included physical scuffles and the eventual expulsion

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An Egyptian appeals court on Saturday extended the investigative detention by 15 days of a rights campaigner who had been advising the family of an Italian student found tortured to death in Cairo.

The decision followed a chaotic courtroom hearing that included physical scuffles and the eventual expulsion from the room of foreign diplomats, journalists and family members.

Ahmed Abdullah, the head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, was arrested at his suburban home early on April 25 and stands accused of inciting revolt and terrorism. His detention came just hours before thousands of riot police stifled planned demonstrations in Cairo that were to be held in defiance of a protest ban to denounce President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's recent decision to surrender control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

Lawyers from Abdullah's NGO had offered assistance to the lawyers of the family of the Italian doctoral student, Giulio Regeni, who was abducted in Cairo on Jan. 25. His body, bearing signs of severe torture, was found nine days later on the side of a suburban Cairo road. The city was on a police lockdown on Jan. 25 to prevent protests marking the anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Abdullah entered the courtroom carrying a note on a small piece of origami that read in Arabic "truth for Regeni."

From the cage in the courtroom, Abdullah said, "I will continue to fight for justice for Giulio."

Inside the courthouse tower, a crumbling complex with garbage strewn in corridors and crowds cramming into courtrooms, police and employees were surprised and on guard by the presence of foreigners — both journalists and embassy representatives.

A fight broke out between bailiffs and lawyers in the chamber when activists tried to photograph Abdullah, with police confiscating phones temporarily to delete the photos. In a courtroom filled with cigarette smoke, bailiffs repeatedly attempted to call for order by banging their fists on desks, with one collapsing a wooden bench by trying to stand on it and shout to the room.

Guards joked with each other as well as with sometimes upbeat defendants in the packed courtroom cage, who at one point broke out into songs about freedom from state repression popularized during the 2011 revolt. As waiters selling tea and sweets shouted out their wares, and a garbage collector begged for tips, defendants were roughly led one by one in manacles into a rear chamber for judgment.

Regeni's parents have said they were distraught over Abdullah's arrest.

Their son's killing has poisoned Egypt's close relations with Italy, and prompted accusations that Egypt's security services were involved. Egypt has repeatedly denied this, and the Interior Ministry has suggested five members of a criminal gang police killed were responsible, releasing photos of Regeni's IDs it said was found at the house of a gang member's relative.

The men's relatives say they were house painters merely heading to a job when they were killed, and witnesses have said the men were unarmed and tried to flee as police fired on them, confiscating footage from security cameras near the scene afterward.

Italian investigators meanwhile arrived in Cairo Saturday to follow up on the Regeni case, with the Italian daily La Repubblica reporting that they were seeking additional documents and other evidence including some phone records not turned over during previous meetings.