NICOSIA, Cyprus — An Egyptian hijacker who’s fighting his extradition accused Egypt’s military-backed government of torturing and killing an Italian doctoral student, claiming he saw Giulio Regeni being interrogated in a Cairo prison.
In a surprising twist to lengthy extradition proceedings, Seif Eddin Mustafa told a Cypriot court that he hijacked the domestic EgyptAir flight in March intending to seek asylum in Italy in order to “point the finger” at the Egyptian military regime.
Mustafa said he caught a glimpse from behind a blindfold of a “foreign-looking” person in Lazogli prison during his nearly two-month detention there in December and January after being arrested for using a false Ukrainian passport.
The 59-year-old said he recognized Regeni from photos he came across after his release, insisting that he’s “convinced” Egyptian security forces killed the Italian at the Cairo prison he called the “slaughterhouse.”
Regeni disappeared in Cairo on Jan. 25 and his body — which bore signs of severe torture — was found nine days later on a suburban Cairo road.
“Regeni was in reality held by security forces and was interrogated at the same prison as I was in Lazogli Cairo,” Mustafa said in a long statement in Arabic that he read out in court.
“Upon getting released and seeing his pictures, I connected all these facts together and I realized that the person found dead in the street was the same person I saw when I was detained,” he said.
Mustafa said he committed the March 29 hijacking to “expose (Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s) fascist regime to the world.”
The six-hour ordeal ended peacefully on the tarmac of Cyprus’ Larnaca airport where the plane was diverted after all 72 passengers and crew were released and Mustafa was arrested.
“I never wanted to take hostages or frighten anyone,” Mustafa said. “It was a desperate move for freedom in Egypt that initiated my actions.”
He also claimed the fact that he allowed some passengers to take photographs with him on their cell phones was at attempt to put their minds at ease and to assure them that he meant them no harm.
Mustafa said he had told the pilots to land in Cyprus, Greece or Turkey so the aircraft can refuel and ultimately take him to Italy, where he would seek asylum.
He also blasted Cypriot authorities for calling him “unstable” as well as for suggesting that he committed the hijacking simply to seek out his Cypriot ex-wife whom he said he “had no reason to or plan to see.”
Cyprus police said Mustafa told them after his arrest that he acted because the Egyptian government hadn’t allowed him to see his ex-wife and three children on Cyprus in 24 years.
Mustafa said this “purposeful misinformation” indicated that the governments of Cyprus and Egypt where in cahoots to “hide my true motives, to discredit me and to cloud the matter.”
“I desperately wanted to attract the free western people’s attention…so everyone here in the west can see and understand what is going in in Egypt where death or oppression are the fate of anyone who demands freedom, justice, democracy,” he said.
Mustafa said he “knows very well” his extradition would result in torture or death. “In any case, when I land in Egypt, I shall be a ‘dead man walking’,” he said.
Mustafa repeatedly denounced the Egyptian government for mounting a coup against the “freely and democratically elected” Islamist President Mohammed Morsi but denied being a supporter of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Although calling himself a “pacifist” and a “liberal,” Mustafa outlined at length his membership and actions with the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Front of Palestine as well as with factions opposed to Egypt’s peace accord with Israel and the man who signed the agreement, assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
He said he worked for the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and Greece while using many aliases and forged passports from numerous nations.
Mustafa said he was shot in the foot during attacks against Israeli positions in Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion of the country.
He also said he had received training on a large-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun in the former Soviet Union and received the rank of lieutenant.
Mustafa claimed to have been arrested, detained and tortured in Egypt on numerous occasions during the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
He said he was compelled to use forged identification papers and passports even within Egypt because authorities considered him “a suspicious person and a threat to national security.”