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Mario Cerciello Rega: US teen held over officer’s killing ‘illegally blindfolded’

Italian police are investigating a leaked photo of a blindfolded American teenager who is accused of killing an officer in Rome.

Carabinieri officers paid their respects to Mario Cerciello Rega at a church service in Rome, Italy
Carabinieri officers paid their respects to Mario Cerciello Rega at a church service in Rome, Italy

The photo of murder suspect Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, was shown by Italian media on Sunday.

Mr Natale-Hjorth and his friend, 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder, were arrested on suspicion of killing police officer Mario Cerciello Rega on Friday.

Rega, 35, was stabbed to death in the Prati neighbourhood of Rome.

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He was allegedly knifed eight times after he investigated a drug deal gone wrong involving the teen suspects.

Police have alleged that Mr Natale-Hjorth and Mr Elder, both students from San Francisco, California, “confessed to their guilt”.

The picture of Mr Natale-Hjorth, showing him blindfolded with his head bowed and hands restrained behind his back, was taken after their arrest.

It was leaked to Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, whose article about the picture likened it to the treatment of prisoners at the US military detention camp Guantánamo Bay.

Italy’s military police, the Carabinieri, has sought to distance itself from the leak of the photo and has launched an investigation.

“This is an unacceptable episode and should be treated as such,” commander general of the force, Giovanni Nistri, told Corriere della Sera.

Police commander Francesco Gargaro said the blindfolding of a suspect is “illegal”, telling the Associated Press that the officer responsible did so by “mistake”.

The officer blindfolded Mr Natale-Hjorth to prevent him from seeing documents pertaining to the investigation, the commander said. Italian news agency Ansa reported that the officer is to be taken off operational duty.

Italian politicians and human rights groups expressed concern at the photo, but Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was less sympathetic.

“To those who complain about the blindfolding of a person arrested, I remind them that the only victim to cry for is a … Carabinieri… who died while doing his job, killed by people who, if guilty, deserve to spend their life in prison,” Mr Salvini tweeted.

What do we know about Rega’s killing?

The two suspects were allegedly in the Trastevere area, near to Vatican City, trying to buy drugs.

They are said to have stolen a rucksack from an alleged drug dealer who had sold them fake product, according to Ansa.

They reportedly offered to bring it back to him, if he paid them $100 (£80; €90) and gave them a gram of cocaine.

As they waited, they were approached by Rega and a colleague as part of a plain-clothed operation because the police had been tipped off about the bag exchange, Ansa reported.

A brawl ensued, during which Rega was stabbed several times. He was taken to hospital, where he died of his injuries.

Mr Natale-Hjorth and Mr Elder, who face charges of murder and attempted extortion, appeared in court on Saturday.

Officers found a large knife hidden in the false ceiling of their hotel room. The pair were “ready to leave” Italy when found, police said.

Who was the victim?

Vice-Brigadier Rega had been married only 43 days and had returned from his honeymoon just this week.

“Mario was a lovely lad,” Sandro Ottaviani, commander of Rome’s Piazza Farnese Carabinieri station, was quoted as saying by Ansa.

“He never held back at work and he was a figurehead for the whole district. He always helped everyone. He did voluntary work, accompanying sick people to Lourdes and Loreto. Every Tuesday he went to Termini train station to feed the needy.”

Grieving family members and friends paid tribute to Rega at a church ceremony in Rome on Sunday.

His funeral will be held in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana, near Naples, on Monday, in the same church in which he was married. BBC News