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‘The uprisings opened up the door’: the TV cop shows confronting a harmful legacy | US television

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There’s a moment of police harassment in the pilot of ABC’s cop drama The Rookie, which premiered in fall 2018, that’s so tangential to the plot you could easily miss it.

Three Mexican gardeners honk at the cruiser of an abrasive training officer, who then berates the gardeners as a “test” of his rookie trainee on her first day. The three mostly mute Mexican men are accessories to this characterization of the tough-guy officer and his flustered trainee, as the effect of the harassment on their lives goes unexplored – until a third season episode from earlier this year, in which the trainee asks the officer to imagine how the gardeners felt about the “terrorizing” encounter that, for them, was not a test. His admission that he “used” the gardeners is a startling example of on-air revision: a main character acknowledging a personal failure that is also the show’s failure to consider that the minority characters – in real life, the policed – were used to positively characterize its police officers.

It’s also the work of cultural consultants, experts on diversity and inclusion who advise TV producers and writers’ rooms on how to more responsibly and accurately portray law enforcement on television. Following last summer’s nationwide protests against anti-black police brutality, broadcast networks have increasingly turned to consultants to address the disconnect between the reality of racist policing and the lionized, mostly race-blind law enforcement seen on such popular shows as Law & Order, NCIS, Blue Bloods and Chicago PD. Before the protests, “the barrier was just getting people to recognize the urgency of changing these narratives,” said Kristen Marston, culture and entertainment advocacy director for Color of Change, who helped advise The Rookie’s third season. “The uprisings opened up the door.”

Outside help in TV writers’ rooms is not new: crime shows have, since the beginning of serialized TV, collaborated with ex-law enforcement advisers or police departments to depict seemingly realistic, unfailingly heroic policing; post-#MeToo movement, film and television productions turned en masse to intimacy coordinators to safely choreograph sex scenes. Cultural consultants such as Marston could become a new standard on crime shows – one tool to address how some of the most popular shows on television work as PR for a criminal justice system that is not the generally color-blind, fair, dramatic and effective one seen on screen.

Hollywood has long been one of the most influential forces in how Americans think about law enforcement, particularly for white people who are, as a group, less likely to have a harmful interaction with police. From Dragnet to Dirty Harry, NYPD Blue to Law & Order and its many spinoffs, film and television overwhelmingly present law enforcement as heroic, or at least acting with good intentions. Nowhere is this perspective – “cop-aganda” in which police are always the protagonists – more entrenched than in network procedurals. These shows, in which a stable roster of characters resolve a case within a single episode, have for the past decade composed anywhere from a fifth to over a fourth of all scripted network programming; NBC has an entire night devoted just to the Law & Order creator Dick Wolf’s trifecta of Chicago first responder shows (PD, Med and Fire); six of the top 10 most watched scripted broadcast shows in 2020 were crime procedurals.

A still from The Rookie
A still from The Rookie. Photograph: ABC/2021 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

These shows about a system which disproportionately targets people of color are overwhelmingly produced and written by white people. The landmark 2020 Color of Change study Normalizing Injustice, which examined broadcast crime series airing in 2018-2019, found that 86% of writers across 19 series were white, and five series had entirely white writers’ rooms. Despite depicting a criminal justice system that over-polices black Americans – black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and black and Latino people comprise 56% of incarcerated Americans (compared to 32% of the population at large) – all series except CBS’s Swat had 15% or less black writers, and nine series had none at all.

As in many industries, Hollywood responded to intense public pressure for change last summer with some immediate, once unthinkable actions. Paramount shelved the popular show Cops, the longest-running reality series in TV history, which for 33 years used questionably sourced footage of real arrests to valorize misconduct as a necessary policing measure and exaggerate the prevalence of violent crime. A day later, A&E cancelled a similar series, LivePD. CBS struck a groundbreaking deal with a police reform group founded by the executive of Obama’s taskforce on 21st-century policing, 21CP Solutions, to advise portrayals of police on its shows. The network also pledged 25% of its development budget to black, Indigenous and people of color (bipoc) creators, and promised its writers’ rooms would be, at minimum, 40% bipoc for the 2021-2022 season.

Showrunners and writers also went public with their personal intentions to embrace change. The cast of the NBC comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund. Donnie Wahlberg, star of CBS’s Blue Bloods, one of the more conservative cop procedurals on air, teased a “more mindful” upcoming season. Law & Order SVU’s executive producer and showrunner, Warren Leight, also pledged to re-examine the influence of the hero-cop narrative. “This has to be a moment where people make themselves uncomfortable, where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable,” he told the Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast in June last year.

“I always tried to approach from a place of having cops trying to do the right thing,” Alexi Hawley, co-creator and showrunner of The Rookie, told the Guardian of the show’s early seasons. But after 2020, “it felt like being solely aspirational wasn’t good enough any more, that we were showing a version of policing that was alien to many people.”

The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and the cultural reckoning over systemic racism that followed, pressured Hollywood to grapple with its productions’ responsibility in obfuscating and excusing the real criminal justice system’s harms – calls renewed this week after Chauvin became one of the few officers ever convicted for a fatal shooting in a system that overwhelmingly sees police use of force as justified. Nearly a year later, now that episodes conceived and written post-2020 have aired, the question is: how much is changing?

Law & Order: SVU.
Law & Order: SVU. Photograph: five

Television presents a version of the world which, as the Color of Change chief, Rashad Robinson, puts it in the intro for Normalizing Injustice, “license law enforcement to do whatever they think is right to catch the bad guy” and “justify and rationalize the actions of law enforcement and prosecutors no matter how many people get hurt along the way”.

Procedurals offer “a very simplified view of law and order and offending in general”, said Kathleen Donovan, a political scientist whose 2015 study analyzed the effect of police use of force on public perception. Crime is depicted as a static constant, though rates of violent and property crimes have declined sharply since the early 90s. Most TV crimes are violent and solved by the end of the episode, even though property crime is far more common than violent crime and police are far less effective at closing cases.

Shows like Law & Order: SVU, which solve sexual assault cases at triple the national rape case clearance rate of 33.4%, promote “fantasies of hyper-competence”, said Soraya McDonald, a cultural critic at the Undefeated, with “situations where police are always in the right”. Officers such as the longtime SVU anchor Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), whose disciplinary record of multiple lethal shootings is mentioned several times in his return to the series this month after a decade’s absence, “might not necessarily operate by the book, or neglect to give someone their Miranda rights, or will use some sort of subterfuge that is justified because it is neatly wrapped up”. The resolution of “see, we’ve caught the bad guy” almost always outweighs the ethical transgressions – breaking into a house unannounced, use of weapons, witness intimidation, roughing up a suspect, or just macho aggressiveness – deployed as “necessary” for the end.

Years of research have demonstrated how consumption of television news influences one’s perception of, say, the prevalence of local crime. Depictions of justified force and hyper-competency on scripted TV shows can similarly shape how positively people view police. The links are not directly causal, but subliminal, especially as Americans spent, on average, 2.8 hours a day watching TV in 2019. “It’s entirely plausible that people are changing their attitudes or forming perceptions based on what they’re watching repeatedly on TV, even if they tell you, ‘I know it’s not real,’” said Donovan.

Seeming “real” has been the aim since the earliest police procedurals, which began a long tradition of Hollywood productions acting as a mouthpiece for police departments. As Alyssa Rosenberg documented in her exhaustive, seminal 2016 Washington Post series on law enforcement in film and television, one of the first popular police procedurals, Dragnet, which premiered in 1951, worked in full collaboration with the LAPD and its police chief, William Parker, on storylines and logistical help, in exchange for script approval by the police.

The show set a model for how police and Hollywood could work together for mutually beneficial audience entertainment and standardized the use of real-life police consultants on crime shows. Crime staples such as ABC’s NYPD Blue and HBO’s The Wire – the show largely considered to be the most nuanced and challenging depiction of systemic flaws in law enforcement – were both heavily influenced by former police officers. Blue Bloods has a 30-plus year NYPD veteran, James Nuciforo, on retainer as a technical consultant.

A still from The Shield.
A still from The Shield. Photograph: Sony/Sony/Channel 4

Shows that challenged the police narrative were met with department resistance. Glen Mazzara, who co-created FX’s The Shield based on the real LAPD Rampart police corruption scandal, recalled tense conversations between Fox and the LAPD before the show aired in 2002. Presumably worried about the critical nature of the show , whose early prestige anti-hero Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) resorts to extrajudicial violence in a flash-bang unit, the LAPD threatened to withdraw standard security support for production, according to Mazzara, and refused to license their name. Characters in The Shield thus never say “LAPD” by name and wear fake badges on the wrong side of their uniforms. “In my opinion LAPD bullied Fox to make concessions to make sure that we would not in any way try to give a dramatization of the LAPD or the Rampart scandal,” he said.

The deference to the perspective of police is one of the mainstays of television made untenable after last year’s uprisings, according to Mazzara, who went on to serve as co-chair of the Writer’s Guild of America Diversity Advisory Group. Procedurals need to have writers who are “from the community who are coming up against cops”, he said. “We can’t just tell everything from the cops’ perspective. You need to show how people are encountering cops, how people are going through the criminal justice system, and how difficult that can be on individuals and families.”

“I don’t believe most showrunners understand the impact of how people see law enforcement,” said Mazzara. “Because for most showrunners in their profession, in which they’re in a cozy relationship with police consultants, they’re probably not engaging [with] law enforcement, and they’re probably not involved in the communities that are being heavily policed.”

One of the very few exceptions is Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, co-creator of CBS’s Swat and one of the few black showrunners in Hollywood. “As a showrunner of color and as a writer of color, I do feel an added responsibility that I’m not sure some of my peers feel, which is I’m very aware of the content that I put out and the impact it can have on those who perhaps do not have a voice or do not have a spotlight,” he told the Guardian.

A still from SWAT
A still from Swat. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

Swat airs on a network whose audience skews older and whiter than America at large; at the start of last season, the age of its average viewer was 63, the oldest of the four broadcast networks. The CBS slot, said Thomas, offers “an opportunity to reach an audience who may, in some cases, very rarely interact with someone who looks or sounds or comes from the background as our main character”, Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson (Shemar Moore), a black former marine raised in south LA.

Thomas is careful to balance discussion of race and policing with the familiar adrenaline of action; the show’s 2017 pilot, for example, depicts protests in Hondo’s home neighborhood over the accidental killing of a black teenage bystander by one of Hondo’s Swat teammates. Hondo espouses a different method of policing than LAPD higher-ups, and urges his team to treat residents like civilians, like “family”; he also thwarts anarchist terrorists with action-cop standards: fast cars, big guns and explosions.

“The goal is never to proselytize with the show,” said Thomas. “The most effective way, a lot of times, to communicate with people is to guise it with the idea of bringing something of substance, entertainment-wise.”

While Swat addresses the reality of police brutality and racism far more directly than its peers – the fourth season premiere splices a teenage Hondo amid the 1992 LA riots with the adult Hondo in a Black Lives Matter march that ends with him kneeling before a mural of George Floyd – it’s still a high-octane action show in a unit defined by militarized weapons. The “most delicate dance”, said Thomas, is presenting the Swat team “as a life-saving unit” with the show’s entertainment action-genre hooks, especially as the protests put the over-militarization of police departments – the tanks, riot gear and military-grade weapons – under greater scrutiny.

As part of a recalibration of that balance, the Swat writing team has been more conscious about depicting gunfire by police in its fourth season, which premiered last November. “Ideally it should be the last resort instead of the first resort,” Thomas said, noting that writers have consciously prioritized uses of non-lethal force in its fourth season. “In the same way that we’re trying to be mindful of the images that we put out culturally and ethically we’re also trying to be aware of the type of violence that we’re perpetuating.”

The Rookie, meanwhile, has incorporated guidance from several cultural consultants into storylines that expand from “bad apple” individual to rotten tree system. Third-season storylines include intergenerational conflicts between black officers over how hard to push for reform; the difficulty, both in administrative hurdles and attitudes, of disciplining an officer who routinely profiles and harasses black residents; unhelpful white savior complexes at a community policing center in a predominantly black, underfunded neighborhood; and the perverse incentive for police to up-charge misdemeanors to felonies in order to induce plea deals.

The show’s central aspiration, in other words, has shifted from depicting police officers doing their work well to police departments handling systemic issues better. “For the first couple months, we were in listening mode and trying to figure out how to do it,” said Hawley. “We really took it on as a challenge to go ‘how many different ways can we talk about what the problem is and still be our show?’”

But not all shows are embracing the directness seen in Swat and The Rookie. Blue Bloods, which Slate called “the perfect white-privilege lullaby” in 2014 for its belief in police color-blindness in a fundamentally fair system, obliquely incorporates last year’s reckoning in its 11th season through pervasive anxiety among the force about bad PR. The character of Regina Thomas (Whoopi Goldberg), a city council speaker calling for police reform, acts as a benevolent foil to its star, the chagrined, ultimately sacrosanct Commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck); relieving the heat of the moment, for Frank and Blue Bloods, is portrayed as a matter of interpersonal niceties and common middle ground, rather than police reform. The arc of the season isn’t toward racial justice, or department introspection, so much as Frank Reagan’s balance of “the common good” and the show’s utmost value: loyalty to the police family.

A still from Blue Bloods.
A still from Blue Bloods. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

Law & Order: SVU has found somewhat of a middle ground, with headline-lifting storylines that gently challenge its officers’ methodology without undermining their fundamental heroism. In its 22nd season premiere, a black internal affairs investigator calls out Detective Olivia Benson’s implicit racial biases after she arrests an innocent black man in an incident ripped directly from the viral video of Amy Cooper, a white woman, falsely accusing a black man of harassment in Central Park last summer. Another episode drops Detective Finn Tutuola, played by Ice-T, in a deposition for his fatal shooting, depicted in a prior season, of a black man who held a knife to his young son’s throat. New supervisors interrogate Stabler’s penchant for vengeance-fueled aggression; “we don’t do it this way any more,” Benson says after he threatens to beat up a mouthy suspect in his mid-season return. All three stress over how, as Benson puts it, “everything is being looked at through a different prism now.” The show processes public pressure for an updated playbook through personal reckonings – mistakes and shortcomings shown in a new light and then absolved by good intentions.

The relative stability of juggernaut shows like Blue Bloods and Law & Order, which gesture at shifting attitudes but don’t significantly change their formula, are part of the reason why some, such as Rosenberg, have called the genre itself compromised and outdated. How can shows so closely aligned with the centering of cop narratives tell more ethical, responsible stories?

Limited series which depict the fallibility of law enforcement, such as Netflix’s Unbelievable, which adapted a ProPublica story about an investigation into a serial rapist initially botched by disbelieving Seattle police officers, or the systemic racism in Watchmen, could point the way forward. As do renewals in genres such as romcoms and teen movies, which have updated sexist, heteronormative tropes to reflect audiences’ fluid, inclusive, queer realities.

If procedurals were more accurate to real life, “I think we would be alternately bored and disgusted by them,” said critic McDonald. The question is not so much a limitation of depicting law enforcement than of writers’ imaginations in how holistic, nuanced and oriented to make said depictions – writing which “actually reflects the truth of how people live”, said McDonald, “and how their lives are affected by policing”. What would a police show that centered bail reform or abolition movements or community alternatives to policing look like?

The Rookie and Swat are two shows which have started to embrace storytelling aimed at systemic brokenness. One of the positives of 2020, said Thomas, was finding an audience “that was ready to have actually more intelligent, more nuanced conversations about race, class, the challenges that occur between seemingly disparate elements when we’re talking about the community and police”.

“I’m personally seeing a change, where there’s certain things that I’m seeing people talk about on TV, on network shows, that I never would’ve imagined they would want to talk about,” said Marston of crime shows at large. But hiring a consultant is “not a replacement for a black writer”, she said, nor a remedy for an industry-wide failure to promote black talent beyond the lowest writers’ room ranks. “I’m there to talk about the issues surrounding the communities that the black writers shouldn’t have to know about if they don’t want to,” Marston said.

“I hope that we can at some point say that this is the new standard, the old practices are no longer acceptable,” she added. “I don’t think that we’re quite there yet.”

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Unit 29155: Russian spy detected in Catalonia accused of poisoning Bulgarian arms dealer | International

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Image of Denis Sergeev in 1999 taken from a documentary on the battle for Alilen.
Image of Denis Sergeev in 1999 taken from a documentary on the battle for Alilen.

The public prosecutor in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia has accused General Denis Sergeev – a Russian spy who traveled to Barcelona two days before the October 1, 2017 unauthorized referendum on Catalan independence – of the attempted murder of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, his son Hristo Gebrev, and an executive of Gebrev’s company Emco Odd, according to intelligence sources consulted by EL PAÍS.

The three victims were poisoned after coming into contact with a chemical agent. Emilian Gebrev suffered hallucinations, vomiting and fell into a coma, remaining in hospital for three weeks. The incident took place in Sofia between April 28 and May 4, 2015, according to sources from Sofia’s public prosecutor.

Gebrev began to feel unwell, four days after Sergeev arrived in Bulgaria

In January this year, the public prosecutor accused three Russian citizens of the attempted murder, but did not reveal their names. A spokesperson from the organization told EL PAÍS that the secrecy was justified given that the country’s laws prohibit information being revealed from an ongoing investigation.

The Sofia public prosecutor subsequently issued three European arrest warrants and international arrest warrants with the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) in an effort to extradite the three accused Russians to Bulgaria, where they are facing charges of premeditated attempted murder.

Spanish police sources maintain that Sergeev is also wanted in at least two other countries where his presence has been detected.

The Sofia public prosecutor began to suspect Sergeev’s involvement in the poisoning after reviewing security camera footage of an underground car park from April 28, 2015. The video, which lasts two minutes, shows a man approaching a vehicle. According to the public prosecutor, “an FBI laboratory was tasked with doing an expert study to identify the person implicated in the crime.”

Security camera footage of the underground car park.

Dressed in a hat and gloves, the figure in the video loiters near the car of one of the victims. Investigators believe that the suspect applied a chemical agent to the vehicle in an effort to kill the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev.

Sergeev uses the false name Sergey Fedotov, and has been connected to dozens of destabilization operations in Europe and Asia. The agent, who is linked to the elite Russian military unit known as “Unit 29155,” is also on the radar of Spanish investigators. Last year, Judge Manuel García-Castellón of Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, opened a sealed probe into the role the spy played while he was in Barcelona. As this newspaper revealed, Sergeev traveled to the Catalan capital on at least two occasions – on November 5, 2016 and on September 29, 2017, just days before the illegal referendum on Catalan independence.

According to the investigative website Bellingcat, with which EL PAÍS collaborates, eight agents from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU, as it is known in Russian by its initials) were involved in the attempted murder of Gebrev, his son and the head of the Emco Odd production department. The Russian spies had traveled to Bulgaria using false names during the period in which the victims were poisoned.

At the end of April, 2015, Sergeev and his colleague Georgy Gorshkov arrived as tourists at a hotel complex in the city of Burgas, on the coast of the Black Sea. Another spy from the unit, Sergey Pavlov, arrived the same day in Sofia.

Four days after the Russians arrived, Gebrev began to feel unwell. The arms dealer initially thought he was suffering from tiredness and the flu, but he then began to feel a burning sensation, dizziness and blurred vision. He was taken to a military hospital in Sofia, where he fell into a coma. His son Hristo and the Emco Odd business executive also fell ill, and were taken to the same hospital, where the three remained for more than three weeks.

A month after being admitted to hospital, Gebrev and his son began having the same symptoms. According to Bellingcat, a urine test revealed that their bodies contained traces of two organophosphates, a toxic substance linked to pesticides.

According to ‘The New York Times,’ Unit 29155 is working to destabilize Europe

Sergeev and Gorshkov left Bulgaria the day after the first poisoning attempt. They flew first to the Istanbul Atatürk Airport in Turkey and then to Moscow. Pavlov returned to the Russian capital on a direct flight.

When former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the United Kingdom with the nerve agent Novichok in March, 2018 – an operation Western intelligence services attribute to Unit 29155 – Gebrev noted similarities between their symptoms and those he had experienced in 2015.

Although Gebrev’s company Emco Odd exported weapons to Georgia during its war with Russia in 2018, the arms dealer told Bellingcat that this was not why he was targeted by the Russian spying unit. According to Gebrev, his company sold less than 10% of all the weapons sold to Georgia by Bulgarian firms.

Another hypothesis from Bellingcat links the attempted poisoning to a power struggle between Bulgarian oligarchs. Gebrev told the investigative journalist network that he did not export weapons to Ukraine, which has been in conflict with Russia since 2014.

Western intelligence services connect 20 agents from Unit 29155 to the assassination of a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin in Berlin in August, 2019. The unit is also linked with the failed coup in Montenegro in 2016, which included a plan to assassinate the prime minister and a destabilization campaign in Moldova.

In October of last year, The New York Times reported that Unit 29155 is part of a hybrid war orchestrated by the Russian government that mixes military confrontation with propaganda, hacking and disinformation. According to the newspaper, the members of the unit are working to destabilize Europe, and are trained in operations of subversion, sabotage and assassination.

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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Giulio Regeni’s last messages before his death in Egypt counter spy claims | Global development

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The Facebook messages written by the Cambridge student Giulio Regeni in the weeks leading up to his murder give the lie to any notion he was a spy or political agitator.

Even before he left England, Regeni was concerned about the risks he might face doing his thesis on trade unions in Egypt, a sensitive subject in the country.

But the 28-year-old thought the worst that could happen would be for him to be deported before he could finish his research.

Instead, he was snatched off the street and tortured and his semi-naked body dumped by the roadside in a brutal killing for which four Egyptian security officials are due to stand trial in Italy in October.

“Egypt is in a difficult state right now,” he wrote before leaving for Cairo, in messages shared with the Guardian by his friend. “The dictatorship is back and until recently it wasn’t clear how brutal it was going to become. It seems that it’s ‘stabilising’ now … this state of affairs is very precarious.”

Enforced disappearances are a daily occurrence under Egypt’s hardline president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Last year, the country’s human rights commission reported 2,723 enforced disappearances in the past five years, some of whom were tortured and shot.

Giulio Regeni in Oxford, UK, 2014
Giulio Regeni in Oxford, UK, in 2014. Photograph: Handout

Regeni is unusual because he was a foreigner, an Italian PhD student at Girton College who moved to Cairo in September 2015 to work on a development studies thesis about independent trade unions.

It was a touchy subject in a country that had seen a huge rise in worker representation during the Arab spring, which swept Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, to power in 2012.

Twelve months later, Morsi was toppled in a coup that eventually installed the former general, Sisi, as the country’s leader, in a return to military rule.

Regeni, who had previously studied Arabic and politics at Leeds University, decided to research his thesis in Cairo from September 2015 to March 2016, with a two-week break at home with his family for Christmas in Fiumicello, north-east Italy.

In October, a month after his arrival, he described trade unions as “the only remaining force in civil society”.

He concentrated on the street vendors, of whom there were about 6 million, who had set up a union to combat government crackdowns. Regeni said the situation in Cairo was “depressing, but not manic like 2013”.

“This doesn’t feel like it’s going to be another 30 years,” he added, in reference to the length of rule of the previous army leader, Hosni Mubarak.

But things took a worrying turn when, at a meeting of union activists, Regeni spotted a veiled young woman taking his picture on her phone, which made him fear he was under surveillance.

Street vendors in the central Attaba district of Cairo, on February 2021
Street vendors in the central Attaba district of Cairo, on February 2021. Regeni’s work focussed on them while he was in Egypt. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

He was also getting irritated by vendors hassling him for mobile phones and the head of their union asking for money for family medical bills. When the student said he could not help, Mohamed Abdallah reported him to police, later claiming he thought he was a spy.

In one of his last Facebook messages, Regeni asked for help with his English in a paper he had written.

Five days later he was snatched off the street on his way to an evening out.

Nine days after that his body was found, dumped on the side of the Cairo-Alexandria highway. He had been tortured; beaten, burned and stabbed before his neck was broken after he was struck from behind with a heavy, blunt object.

His injuries were so severe that when his mother, Paola, saw his body she could only recognise him from the “tip of his nose”.

What followed was an apparent cover-up by the authorities. President Sisi, in an interview with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, vowed to track down the culprits. Instead it was then claimed there had been a robbery by a gang, all now dead.

But Italian investigators discovered phone records that showed the leader of the gang – all killed in a police shootout – was not even in Cairo at the time Regeni disappeared. They concluded the student’s identity documents had been planted at one of their addresses.

In large part due to eyewitnesses coming forward to say they saw Regeni being interrogated at the National Security Agency headquarters, an Italian judge last month said the four senior Egyptian security officials should stand trial. Gen Tariq Sabir, Col Usham Helmi, Col Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim and Maj Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif face charges of aggravated kidnapping. Sharif is also being accused of conspiracy to commit murder.

Egypt has closed the case and refuses to extradite the suspects to Italy, so the trial will go ahead without them.

Regeni and Johannes Svensson
Regeni with Johannes Svensson, who he shared a flat with in Cairo. Photograph: Handout

Johannes Svensson shared a flat in Cairo with Regeni while he was working for a UN agency in 2013, at the time Morsi was overthrown.

“He was interested in how this group of street vendors, who you might suspect are quite weak, organises itself in an efficient way and manages to have some political leverage.”

Regeni was an academic, not a political agitator, says Svensson.

In fact, he described Regeni as the “cautious” one when they were together on the streets in July 2013 to witness the celebrations after Morsi’s overthrow.

Since his death, Regeni has become a martyr – or shahid – for the disappeared in Sisi’s Egypt.

“That’s why there’s graffiti of him in Cairo,” says Regeni’s anonymous Facebook friend. “He is a representative figure of that.”

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to stop the war, talk to Iran

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Yemen’s foreign minister Ahmed Awad BinMubarak has a clear message to the European Union: to be united, and to talk to Iran, in order to achieve peace in Yemen.

“I ask the EU to use all the leverage it has to give a message to the Houthis and Iran,” BinMubarak said in an interview with EUobserver.

  • Yemen’s foreign minister Ahmed Awad BinMubarak (Photo: Yemen Embassy)

What that message should be, is accepting the UN’s proposed deal for a ceasefire, reopening the airport in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, reopening the seaport of Al Hudaydah and to restart political talks.

Yemen is going through critical days, as the Saudi-led coalition announced a halt to its military operations – in order to give negotiations by neighbouring Oman a chance.

Unverified sources say Oman may be close to reaching an agreement between the Saudi-supported coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to stop the fighting and let humanitarian aid into the country.

However, any ceasefire is still uncertain, as the Houthis raise the stakes before agreeing to their participation to new political talks.

On Sunday (13 June) a Houthi drone crashed into a school in Saudi Arabia, although without casualties.

“The international community always talks to [Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif. He always says he supports peace,” he said, adding that “the reality on the ground in Yemen is different, as there it is people from the Quds forces running the show.”

BinMubarak also said that the Yemeni government has found ships full of arms being transported from Iran to the Houthis in Yemen.

Therefore, he concludes “Iran has the key. The EU should pressure the Houthis and Iran – without making a link to the nuclear deal.”

Europe, the United States, Russia and China have been trying to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by which Iran would not be able to go further with its nuclear arms programme.

Asked about the role of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the conflict, the Yemeni foreign minister said that they only entered the war after the Houthis entered Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes in Yemen by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations.

World’s biggest humanitarian crisis

The war in Yemen, lasting more than six years now, has brought the country to total collapse.

According to Unicef, “Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.”

More than four million people have fled their homes, and are mostly displaced inside the country.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “approximately 66 percent of IDPs [internally-displaced people] in Yemen live in dangerous locations, characterised by widespread food insecurity and lack of water, healthcare and sanitation services.”

“Their situation has become even more challenging since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of a looming famine in the country,” the UN agency says.

Despite this tragic situation, Yemen itself is still hosting more than 135,000 refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia.

Crisis ‘man-made’

BinMubarak told EUobserver he was visiting Brussels to correct some wrong perceptions about the war in Yemen.

“The conflict in Yemen is not one between regional powers. Neither is it a sectarian war. Many in the EU forget the national factor in the conflict,” he said.

“Also, the humanitarian crisis is not just a result of the war, it is man-made. As one of the most important contributors to humanitarian aid in Yemen, the EU should be more aware of this,” he added.

The EU has funded Yemen with €648m in humanitarian aid since 2015, and €95m in 2021.

However, according to BinMubarak, the aid is not reaching the people that really need it. “80-percent of the aid comes through the port of Hudeida, controlled by the Houthi rebels. People who are suffering the most, don’t receive anything.”

“Therefore,” he added, “we need fix the real problem. We have to break the circle. We need to end this war.”

‘We lived in their tents’

Since the Arab revolution in 2011, Yemen has ricocheted from one crisis to another.

The Arab Spring lead to the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of North Yemen from 1978 to 1990, and president of Yemen from 1990 until 25 February 2012.

He was succeeded by his former vice-president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, following an agreement made at the National Dialogue Conference, held between March 2013 and January 2014.

BinMubarak himself was secretary-general of the National Dialogue Conference, arguing he knows the Houhtis well.

“We lived with them in the same tents at Tahrir Square during the uprising,” he said.

According to BinMubarak, the Houthis were constructive during the national dialogue – but that has now changed, under the influence of Iran.

President Hadi, as well as the government of Yemen, lived in exile in Saudi Arabia, but since December 2020 operate out of Aden.

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