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Italians returning France's top award in protest at honoring of Egypt's Sisi

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, hold a press conference following their meeting at the Elysee presidential Palace, in Paris, France, on December 7, 2020. (Photo by AFP)

Two prominent Italian intellectuals have announced they are returning their Legion of Honor awards to France in protest at the awarding of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with the distinction despite his government's dire human rights record.

Corrado Augias, a journalist and former member of the European Parliament, took his 2007 prize back to the French Embassy on Monday.

Giovanna Melandri, a former Italian culture minister and the president of Rome's Maxxi contemporary art museum, also said she would follow suit.

Both cited Egypt's role in the 2016 murder of an Italian student in Cairo, as well as the regime's other human rights abuses.

Augias accused Sisi of being "objectively complicit, as head of state, in the criminal behavior committed by his men."

Sisi paid a visit to France last week, when President Emmanuel Macron awarded him with the highest French honor during a closed-door ceremony.

The ceremony, which became public only when the Egyptian presidency published photos of it, took place at the same time that Rome prosecutors were detailing the torture that Italian doctoral student suffered to a parliamentary committee.

 "The two things together were too strong," Augias told reporters outside the French Embassy. "I couldn't refrain from reacting."

On Thursday, Italian prosecutors formally charged four members of Egypt's national security agency with the kidnapping and murder of Regeni in Cairo.

Melandri also announced on Monday that she too would return her 2003 prize, saying it was sad but necessary to make clear that "honor" should mean something.

"I hope that this gesture can help open a frank and friendly confrontation in our two countries on which values ​​should be that we want to defend, strengthen and continue to 'honor' in a democratic Europe and a globalized world," she said in a Facebook post.

Roberto Fico, speaker of Italy's lower house of parliament, hailed the move.

"Europe must be united and supportive, never selfish, even more so when fundamental rights are at stake," he tweeted.

Sisi has faced international condemnation for a crackdown on civil society groups since he took power in 2014, a year after a military coup spearheaded by him toppled the country's first ever democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Since Morsi's overthrow, Egyptian authorities have been engaged in a persistent crackdown on dissent, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.

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