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RIGHTS: Italian Intelligence Battle over Abducted Cleric

Sabina Zaccaro and Miren Gutierrez*

ROME, Feb 13 2007 (IPS) - Abu Omar apparently never knew he had been tailed, so he did not notice that the Italian political crime investigation unit, DIGOS, had stopped following him. But the head of the Central Intelligence Agency in Milan Robert Seldon Lady knew that DIGOS had aborted the chase, and that facilitated the abduction of the Egyptian cleric.

That at least is what beleaguered former intelligence boss Nicolò Pollari says now in an attempt to extricate himself from the kidnapping.

Nasr Mustafa Osama Hassan, known in Italy as Abu Omar, was only released Sunday, four years to the day after his disappearance in February 2003.

“An Egyptian state security court found his detention in Egypt unfounded,” his lawyer Montasser al-Zayat told the press from Cairo. Al-Zayat added that Abu Omar was now at his family home in Alexandria.

Abu Omar was one of the targets of “extraordinary rendition”, the CIA-sponsored operation in which untried terrorism suspects were taken for interrogation to third countries. Now an Italian probe is trying to determine who in Italy helped the CIA in the abduction, and how it happened.

Abu Omar, who was a member of the Islamic group Jama’a al-Islamiya, had left Egypt in the early 1990s in order to escape repression of Islamists.

In 1997 he was granted political asylum in Italy, and he received an Italian refugee passport. After Sep. 11, he was put under surveillance by the Milan police for suspected international terrorism.

Abu Omar vanished on his way to a Milan mosque, just before noon prayers. At first, he was reported missing. It later emerged from the account of a witness that he had been blocked on the sidewalk, snatched by two men, and stuffed into a van.

Documents with the preliminary investigations court in Milan say that he was freed from jail, and that he called home in April 2004. Abu Omar reported he had been brought to a U.S. military base five hours by car from Milan, and then flown to Egypt, where he said he had been tortured and beaten during questioning. He had lost hearing in one ear.

The calls were recorded by the Italian secret services, and transcribed into court documents. These documents do not clarify which agency was responsible for the tapping, although they state that the tapping was lawfully permitted by “the competent magistrate”.

It is not clear either when exactly he was released from prison in Egypt. They reveal, though, that during his release, he had called his wife Ghali Nabila, and Iman Elbadry Mohammed Reda in Milan.

“They tormented me with questions on many things…I was freed for health reasons; I have a kind of paralysis. To this day I cannot walk for more than 200 metres. I’m always sitting down; I was incontinent, suffered from liver trouble, with high blood pressure…so they let me go on health grounds,” he is reported as telling Iman Elbadry Mohammed Reda, according to the court documents.

This probe – one of the investigations into renditions in Europe – is examining whether U.S. agents broke local laws by detaining terrorist suspects on Italian soil and subjecting them to abuse. It is also seeking to clarify who exactly within the Italian law enforcement agencies cooperated with the CIA.

That last aspect of the inquiry has created a “musical chairs” hubbub.

One view is that if the operatives of DIGOS had been following Abu Omar, they would have intervened while he was being kidnapped. “It could have caused a shooting,” says Titta Madia, former spy master Nicolò Pollari’s lawyer. “Lady had to make sure that Abu Omar wasn’t followed” in order to abduct him at ease.

What Pollari and Madia are busy trying to establish now is that, in order to abduct Omar, the CIA was acting in coordination with someone high up in the DIGOS echelons, and that the Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI) that Pollari formerly headed had nothing to do with it.

That has left many wondering what kind of intelligence services could have ignored such a big operation, which, according to the public prosecutors, involved 26 CIA agents.

A total of 35 people, among them SISMI personnel, CIA operatives and members of the Carabinieri – the Italian armed police – could go on trial following the Milan public prosecutor’s arrest warrants against the U.S. agents in July 2005.

They stand accused of “having kidnapped, depriving him of personal freedom, Nasr Osama Mustafa Hassan alias Abu Omar.”

Armando Spataro, the Milan public prosecutor in charge of the case, has been able to reconstruct the course of events surrounding the abduction, since the CIA operatives used mobile phones and credit cards, hired cars, and left their names on hotel registries. On the basis of these findings, Spataro argues that U.S. agents abducted the cleric with the help of their Italian colleagues.

After additional analysis of the documents collected so far by the Milan prosecutor, the court, chaired by Judge Caterina Interlandi, will decide in the next weeks whether the case goes to court.

If it does, it will be the first attempt to take action against the CIA for its renditions policy.

However, it is doubtful that the U.S. agents will ever again step on Italian soil, considering that they are safely in the U.S. In spite of being included in a Europe-wide ‘wanted’ list, prosecutors’ requests for their extradition have failed so far, and legal experts say they are unlikely to be turned over to Italy.

Others could join this legal action. In an interview Monday with a local news agency, Abu Omar said he would seek damages from the Italian government of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has in turn denied any knowledge of the U.S.-led operation.

Pollari says he opposes extraordinary renditions, and had refused to help the CIA. “Pollari didn’t want to cooperate because he considers it an illegal act,” his lawyer Madia told IPS. “If Pollari said ‘no’, it is impossible that the SISMI (which he headed) cooperated in Abu Omar’s rendition. This even created a crisis between the U.S. and Italy. There was more than one moment of ice between them.”

On Jan. 29, Pollari asked judges in Milan not to indict him over the alleged kidnapping, saying he would not be able to defend himself in court without disclosing sensitive state secrets. Speaking in court, Pollari described himself as “a scapegoat”, and said both Berlusconi and his successor, Romano Prodi, should be asked to testify in court.

Neither Prodi nor Berlusconi will be called to testify on behalf of Italy’s former spy chief, judge Interlandi ruled last week.

U.S. President George W. Bush confirmed last year that the CIA has held suspects at secret overseas locations, but did not reveal where. He also denied using torture, or handing over prisoners to countries that practise it.

The U.S. embassy in Rome has declined to comment. However, extraordinary renditions have received the backing of Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, all heavily criticised for their human rights records.

The exact number of detainees secretly kidnapped by the CIA and moved to third countries is unknown. In November 2006, human rights group Amnesty International assessed the number at 100 to 150.

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor-in-Chief. (END/IPS/EU/MM/NA/IP/HD/MG/SS/07)

 
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