Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

RIGHTS-ITALY: Film Brings the Facts Home

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Feb 27 2008 (IPS) - Italy must accept its involvement in at least two proven cases of prisoner renditions, Amnesty International has demanded. The demand follows admission by the British government that a U.S. base on British soil – the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean – had twice been used by the United States as a refuelling stop for the secret transfer of two terrorism suspects in 2002.

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One of the two Italian cases of extraordinary renditions – the illegal transfer of presumed terrorists directly or indirectly by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and their detention without trial in secret overseas prisons – is that of Maher Arar.

Falsely accused of involvement in terrorism, Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained by U.S. authorities in New York in September 2002 and shipped off to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured for 11 months. On its way to Syria, the secret flight stopped over in Rome’s Ciampino military airport one night in October 2002, human rights groups say. The Italian government has officially denied this happened.

Last year, Canada issued a formal apology to Arar, and agreed to pay him nine million dollars as compensation.

Maher Arar’s true story has inspired the movie ‘Renditions’ by South African director Gavin Hood. The film, endorsed by Amnesty International, opens at Italian cinemas Friday.

“This is an important movie, because it is extremely realistic in describing the most disturbing aspects of the phenomenon of rendition: disappearance, parents of the victim who have no way of learning the facts, political denial, absence of clear-cut charges to justify such procedure, secret detention, abuse, humiliation, torture, and violation of basic human rights,” says Riccardo Noury, spokesman for the Italian office of Amnesty International.

Noury said Amnesty is expecting the film to raise people’s awareness over the issue, and to help get justice for all victims of extraordinary renditions.

The film opened at cinemas internationally in October 2007, but drew considerably more public attention in Europe than in the United States, say distributors. Its launch in Italy is already setting the debate over Italy’s connivance in rendition cases.

Italy’s complicity was documented by a special committee appointed by the European Parliament in 2005 to investigate cases of prisoner renditions and to impose sanctions on EU member states that violated human rights by colluding with the CIA.

Other European countries proven to be involved were Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, Denmark, Turkey, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Romania.

After 12 months of hearings and research, the commission determined that at least 1,245 rendition flights operated by the CIA either flew into European airspace or stopped at the continent’s airports between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005. It asked the EU Council, the political body of the bloc, to order an independent investigation and “where necessary, impose sanctions on member states in case of serious and persistent violations.”

Claudio Fava, who headed the commission, said a follow-up to the investigation is needed, but unlikely to happen. Fava told IPS that he has repeatedly asked for the inquiry to be resumed, but now “after six months waiting, I understand that the European Parliament has no such intention, probably to avoid embarrassment towards some member governments, including Portugal, Germany, Britain, and Italy – where Maher Arar was questioned at Rome’s airport, and let through for his 11 months of torture in Syria.

“Governments that have been supportive of these abuses must take responsibility,” he said. “Some of them are doing their best to avoid a new inquiry, and to rapidly forget the results of last year’s investigation. But the final admission of the British government, which had repeatedly denied that the CIA had ever used British airspace or territory for the secret flights, confirms that such abuses have been committed with Europe’s complicity, and we must do everything we can to be certain that they really belong to the past.”

When asked if there is evidence that renditions have now stopped, Fava said that he cannot rule out that secret flights are continuing, but “it is less probable than in the past years, since now illegal systems have to face the monitoring of a free and democratic press, of human rights groups, and a more aware public who I think doesn’t want to turn a blind eye.”

Italy is home to another well documented case of what prosecutors say was CIA rendition.

Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric who had been granted asylum in Italy, and the former Imam of Milan’s mosque, was abducted by CIA agents in Milan in 2003, and then transferred to Germany and to Egypt, where he was tortured. Italian spies, including the former head of Italy’s military intelligence agency, are being tried for helping the CIA.

An Italian probe in Milan is trying to determine who else in Italy helped the CIA in the abduction, and how it happened, but the investigation was suspended when the Italian government accused prosecutors of violating state secrecy rules. The trial is due to resume Mar. 12.

Armando Spataro, the Milan public prosecutor in charge of the case, told IPS that “what we need today is clarity, over this case and all the others, because renditions are not only human rights violations, these illegal methods absolutely do not help the fight against terrorism.

“As the movie ‘Renditions’ perfectly documents, and as former agents involved in the illegal ‘interrogations’ confirm, no useful information has ever come out of torture,” he said. “I am not sure whether Abu Omar’s trial will actually be restarted in March, I really hope it is, since every judge who has participated in this investigation has found indisputable proof of human rights violations.”

 
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