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The murder and beheading of a 19-year-old Egyptian barber shakes Italy

Mahmoud Abdalla’s boss and another employee killed him because they feared that he would take clients away from their barbershop when he decided to pursue better working conditions

Carabinieri vehículo
A vehicle and several 'carabinieri' officers.Claudio Furlan (LaPresse)

Mahmoud Abdalla, 19, arrived in Italy from Egypt as an unaccompanied minor a couple of years ago; he dreamed of becoming a hairdresser and helping his family back home. He worked as an apprentice at a hairdresser’s shop in the province of Genoa run by his fellow countrymen. Clients appreciated his work and requested that he be the one to style their hair. But the salary was low, the working hours were too long and he was always on his feet, so Mahmoud decided to look for better working conditions elsewhere. He found another barbershop that offered him a better contract and planned to leave his previous job.

But he never got the chance. This week, his mutilated and decapitated body washed up in the sea. The owner of the salon, Abdelwahab Ahmed, and another employee, Mohamed Abdelghani, have confessed to the crime. They feared that when Mahmoud left, he would take clients with him. The young men, aged 26 and 27, are charged with voluntary manslaughter aggravated by trivial reasons and destruction of a corpse. According to the prosecutor in the case, the men are “extremely dangerous” and may destroy evidence, since they initially tried to convince the police that the killing was an accident.

Investigators have confirmed that Abdalla wanted to change jobs because of the poor conditions in which he was working. After talking with several witnesses, they concluded that the young Egyptian went with his killers to the apartment that Mahmoud shared with other employees of the hairdresser’s shop in the Genoese neighborhood of Sestri Ponente. According to the investigators’ theory of the crime, once in the apartment, the boy reiterated his desire to change jobs, despite his bosses’ threats. At that point, according to the Italian press, the older men attacked Mahmoud with a knife and an awl. They then stuffed his body into a suitcase and transported it by cab to the mouth of the Entella River. There, they dismembered Mahmoud’s body, cutting off his head and hands, and threw the corpse into the sea.

The case has shaken Italy for what it says about the precariousness of the labor market and the issue of immigration. “Murdered because he wanted to switch jobs” is the most common headline in the Italian press coverage of the case. Some media, including Il Corriere della Sera, have pointed out that the victim had complained to the police that his bosses were exploiting him and that he was working without a contract.

Videos showcasing Mahmoud’s talent

The owner of the new barbershop where Mahmoud wanted to start working posted videos on Instagram showing the boy during a test to demonstrate his hairdressing talent. The man explained that after Mahmoud left, the two men arrested for his murder went there to express their opposition to letting Mahmoud go, because his leaving would have caused them to lose customers. The owner of the shop where Mahmoud wanted to work also said that he had received a threatening phone call in which he was warned not to hire Mahmoud.

The crime has shocked the local Muslim community. “We said a collective prayer for Mahmoud with some of his friends, who are all very sad and angry. Our law forbids disfiguring a deceased person; it is an offense to him and his relatives. What happened is terrible and for something so trivial no less,” said Hussein Salah, a representative for the Muslims of Genoa.

Italy has certain labor problems, such as inadequate wages for some occupations and for irregular work. According to the National Institute of Statistics, about 3 million workers in Italy receive their wages irregularly, and the underground economy exceeds 10% of the country’s GDP.

Debate over the minimum wage

Italy is one of the few European countries that does not have a minimum wage. The political opposition is calling for a minimum wage of €9 ($9.92) per hour, but the government rejects this proposal.

The exploitation of workers in the agricultural sector, most of whom are immigrants, and elsewhere, is a problem that affects the entire country, despite the fact that such exploitation has been a crime since 2011; it has carried a punishment of up to six years in prison since 2016. Trade unions estimate that the practice affects over half a million workers; in the countryside alone, this generates about €5 billion ($5.5 billion) and accounts for lost taxes in the amount of €1.8 billion ($1.9 billion).

Several welcome cooperatives that help immigrants find housing, employment and education, such as the ones that helped Mahmoud when he arrived in Italy as an unaccompanied minor, have decried society’s indifference to these cases in which precarity and immigration go hand in hand. “He deserved a different future. The real question we should be asking ourselves as a society is whether we are doing enough; I don’t think we are. I just hope that the time will come when we give these young people who are looking for a better future the respect they deserve in all areas,” said Marco Montoli, the president of the “il Ce.Sto” immigrant welcome cooperative.

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