The body of an Italian graduate student who disappeared last month has been found with multiple stab wounds, cigarette burns and other signs of torture and a "slow death" on a roadside on the outskirts of Cairo, an Egyptian prosecutor said Thursday.
Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Cambridge University PhD candidate who had been researching labor rights in Egypt, went missing on Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. His body was found Wednesday.
News of the slaying and evidence of torture spurred diplomatic tensions. An Italian government delegation cut short a visit to Cairo and Italy summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Rome, calling for a full investigation with participation by Italian experts.
Regeni's disappearance came at a time when Egyptian officials and media have often depicted foreigners as plotting against Egypt — and particularly as seeking to foment unrest surrounding the Jan. 25 anniversary. In the days leading up to the anniversary, police were on high alert, conducting sweeps aimed at preventing any possible protest. Pro-democracy activists were arrested and some foreigners whose visas had expired were deported.
Egypt is also battling an insurgency by militants who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group. The militants are mainly active in the Sinai Peninsula but have also carried out attacks in Cairo and elsewhere, including kidnapping and beheading a Croatian oil worker last year and setting off a bomb outside the Italian consulate in Cairo.
On Thursday, Egyptian media accused "evil hands" of orchestrating Regeni's killing to damage Egyptian-Italian relations. The term is usually used to refer to Islamists, who have been targeted by a ferocious crackdown since the 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Authorities justify the campaign by pointing to the fight against the militants, who have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers over the past four years.
The Italian media pointed fingers at the Egyptian security forces.
A business daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, said "the strong suspicion" was that Regeni was "killed by Egypt ... by the system, by the security apparatus."
Regeni had been in Egypt since September conducting research on workers and labor rights — a sensitive topic, since disgruntled workers were among the forces in the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising and authorities still worry about worker discontent.
The left-wing Italian newspaper il Manifesto said Regeni had been writing for it about labor issues, signing his articles under a pseudonym.
"I imagine it was for security because the articles were about workers and unions," said foreign desk editor Simone Pieranni. "It's clear that when you speak about social rights and workers' rights in Egypt you are implicitly denouncing the lack of freedom."
Pieranni said the newspaper would publish a final piece critical of the lack of press and other freedoms in Egypt under Regeni's own name on Friday.
Regeni was last seen on Jan. 25 heading from his apartment to meet a friend in downtown Cairo. He entered the subway, which was packed with security personnel scanning bags and checking commuter's IDs.
In the days following his disappearance, friends and colleagues launched a search, circulating Regeni's picture widely on social media.
His body was found Wednesday in an empty lot along a highway in the 6th of October suburb on Cairo's western outskirts. He was identified by his Egyptian roommate, said prosecutor Ahmed Nagi, who heads the investigation team in the case.
"All of his body, including his face" had bruises, cuts from stabbings and burns from cigarettes, Nagi said, adding Regeni appeared to have suffered a "slow death."
Later Thursday, Nagi said an autopsy showed the cause of death was a brain hemorrhage. Asked about possible police involvement, he said: "We don't rule out any possibility."
Earlier, the deputy head of criminal investigations in Cairo's twin province of Giza, Alaa Azmi, had cited initial findings he said indicated Regeni was killed in a car accident.
For years, rights groups have accused Egyptian police of regularly torturing detainees. Over the past year, they have also accused them of using "forced disappearances" — detaining suspected activists or Islamists in secret without reporting their arrest.
The Egyptian Association for Rights and Freedoms documented 314 cases of forced disappearances in 2015, said lawyer Halem Henish. Most later turned up in prison, but at least five were found at the morgue, including one with signs of torture like burns and electric shocks.
He said the group has documented 35 disappearances so far in 2016, including at least two of whom died.
Meanwhile, in Regeni's hometown of Fiumicello in northeastern Italy, townspeople were "destroyed" by the news of his death, said Mayor Ennio Scridel. The town of 5,000 declared Sunday a day of mourning.
"If you go into a bar, you see dark faces, silences, looks that let escape all the sadness of a small community like ours," Scridel told Sky Tg24. He described Regeni as "an extraordinary person, who comes from a good family."
News of Regeni's death prompted Italy's economic development minister, Federica Guidi, to cut short a visit to Cairo and head home. Guidi had been heading a delegation of 60 business people to help companies set up business in Egypt.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi by telephone and pledged to coordinate efforts with Italian authorities to "unravel the mystery" surrounding Regini's death, el-Sissi's office said.
The Italian news agency ANSA said a seven-person team of Italian and Interpol investigators was heading to Cairo on Friday to participate in the inquiry.
Egyptian authorities have come under criticism for lack of transparency in several investigations, particularly the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula and the September killing of eight Mexican tourists and four Egyptian guides by a security forces helicopter that opened fire on their desert safari. In both cases, authorities banned media reports on the investigations.