This week marks the terrible anniversary of the murder of a 28-year-old Cambridge University PhD student.
Giulio Regeni, an Italian national, had travelled to Egypt to conduct fieldwork into independent trade unions in Egypt. Unexpectedly, he disappeared, and tragically, nine days later his body was found dumped by the side of the road showing signs of torture.
The brutal nature of his death shocked the world and yet one year on we are still far from knowing the truth of what happened.
The months following Giulio’s death were filled with contradictory statements from the Egyptian authorities who have consistently fallen short of their obligations to fully investigate his murder.
The Government’s response has been very limited. In the Commons, the minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Tobias Ellwood MP simply said that the government has urged Egypt to co-operate fully with the investigations being carried out by Italian authorities and the FCO has maintained that the allegations that the Egyptian state is involved in the killing remains unfounded.
Giulio’s parents have led a vociferous campaign through the Italian media for answers and Amnesty International have kept up the pressure with their truth for Giulio campaign.
Finally this week we have seen some progress with the authorities in Cairo permitting Italian experts to retrieve and examine CCTV footage from the underground station where Giulio was last been seen alive.
Yet it is clear many questions still need to be answered and serious pressure applied, not least because this was an attack on a student.
This is not about a blame game. Academics have long travelled the globe carrying out research in dangerous locations. No amount of risk assessment can eliminate risk. But in a world where we have facts and ‘alternative facts’ and where experts are dismissed, there is now a need more than ever to defend the principle of academic freedom.
Britain should lead by example. Universities need to retain their institutional autonomy, and the Higher Education and Research Bill should seek to enshrine this rather than threaten it. Universities should be the arena in which ideas are freely discussed in respectful, constructive ways, enabling the critical thought to be applied to society’s challenges. One of the most effective ways of dealing with and neutralising extremism is to undermine it through reasoned debate.
If free speech and open democracy is to one day flourish in places like Syria, Turkey and Iraq then their fleeing academics need sanctuary so that when the time comes they can return and help to rebuild civil society. An example for us, from one of our European partners is the German Academic Exchange Service which provides funding and support to academics who have fled their country, often because of the repression of academic freedom.
We should call out the scandal of challenges to freedom of thought in the West too, such as the “free speech zones” that many US campuses have. These designated zones imply that academic debate that takes place outside of these zones should be muted, controlled and restricted.
Last year the European Parliament noted declining academic freedom had been reported in some countries in the European Higher Education Area. I have therefore asked Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs chief what more the EU can do to protect and promote academic freedom across Europe and around the world. Along with our other red lines on human rights, this must include a commitment to academic freedom when negotiating trade agreements.
On Wednesday I will be hosting an event in the European Parliament with my Italian MEP colleagues where we will again raise the case of Giulio Regeni. His friends and family deserve answers and we all need to restate the case for academic freedom.