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The CIA's Italian Job | The Nation

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The CIA's Italian Job

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Cairo

About the Author

Mohamad Bazzi
Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University, is a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.

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From her third-floor balcony, the Egyptian woman saw the whole thing: a group of CIA and Italian agents snatching the imam of her local mosque off a Milan street, stuffing him into a white van and driving off. It was February 17, 2003, and Hassan Osama Nasr was walking to the mosque for noon prayers. He was stopped by a man waving a badge and shouting, "Police!" In perfect Italian, the man demanded Nasr's ID, wallet and cellphone. Then two men came up from behind Nasr, grabbed his arms and forced him into the van. It all took about three minutes.

But the agents didn't know that someone had seen the abduction. The woman called the mosque, and word spread among worshipers. By evening, the mosque's leaders suspected that Nasr--a cleric known as Abu Omar who had fled Egypt in 1990--would be sent back to his homeland. They phoned Montasser al-Zayyat, a prominent lawyer in Cairo who has spent his career defending Islamic militants. "The plan was that no one would see him being kidnapped and he would disappear," Zayyat said in an interview at his office. "But that Egyptian woman who happened to be standing on her balcony saved him."

Nasr, 44, is now at the center of the most politically explosive case involving the CIA practice of "extraordinary rendition," in which a suspected militant is secretly abducted and taken to another country for interrogation and, usually, torture. After years of denial, the Bush Administration now acknowledges using the extra-judicial tactic but insists that it does not sanction the torture of suspects.

In February an Italian judge indicted twenty-six Americans--a US Air Force colonel and twenty-five suspected CIA operatives, including the former Rome station chief and former Milan sub-station chief--for their role in the months-long plot to abduct Nasr. Although none of the suspects are in custody, the trial is set to begin June 8, and it has already become an embarrassment for the Bush Administration and the Italian government.

The public relations disaster may have saved others from abduction and torture. "I suspect that Abu Omar's case has slowed down the policy of renditions," said John Sifton, senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch. "It was an incredible embarrassment for the CIA. Undoubtedly, it made them think twice about other abductions."

But the star witness, Nasr, might not be able to testify in Italy. He was released from an Egyptian prison in February, but his lawyer says he is not allowed to leave the country or to make any public statements. "The Egyptian authorities warned him that if he speaks about the case, he will be sent back to prison," said Zayyat. (Egyptian officials had made good on an earlier threat to throw Nasr back in prison: After being released in April 2004, he was arrested twenty days later when the secret police learned that he had been discussing his abduction.)

American and Egyptian officials have refused to comment on the case. Egypt has even refused to confirm or deny that it had Nasr in custody. But a Cairo appeals court ordered his release after he'd been held in prison for four years without charge. And now Egypt, the second-­largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel, is trying to save its benefactor from further embarrassment by preventing Nasr from testifying in Italy. "The Americans want this case to go away," Zayyat said. "They don't want Abu Omar to publicly describe what happened to him."

It's hard to believe that the CIA didn't know what would happen to Nasr. "Egypt's intelligence services are infamous for using torture," said Sifton. "The Americans knew that by sending him to Egypt, he would be tortured," Zayyat said. "They wanted someone to do this dirty work for them."

The trial is likely to reveal new details about the CIA's covert operations and the complicity of Italian intelligence services, and to cast a harsh light on the Bush Administration's dealings with its European allies. Nasr's lawyer plans to travel to Italy for the trial and to file a lawsuit against the US and Italian governments, seeking $13 million in damages. Zayyat also plans to file a separate lawsuit against former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, alleging that he personally approved the abduction. Berlusconi has denied having prior knowledge of the plan.

Nasr entered Italy illegally in 1997 and was granted political asylum four years later. He had fled Egypt after being imprisoned twice in the late 1980s for antigovernment sermons at a mosque in Alexandria. Although he has not been charged with a crime in Italy, he was under investigation for allegedly recruiting Muslim men to fight in Iraq. Italian officials have said they were about to detain him for questioning when the CIA abducted him.

"Abu Omar is prepared to go to Italy, even if he's going to be tried and imprisoned," Zayyat said. "He's convinced of his innocence, and he's confident in the Italian judiciary."

The lead Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, said after the indictments were handed down that he wants Nasr to testify against the American agents, but Egypt has never responded to an Italian request for access to the cleric. "Obviously it would be useful to hear what he has to say," Spataro said. "If he is banned from leaving [Egypt], there's nothing we can do."

In April 2006 Nasr appeared in an Egyptian court for the first time and gave a detailed, two-hour account of his experience. Zayyat said Egyptian officials have refused to give him or Italian prosecutors a transcript of that session. But Zayyat provided The Nation with four pages of handwritten notes he took during his client's testimony. Nasr told the court that shortly after his abduction, US and Italian agents put a black hood over his head and "punched me in the stomach and all over my body." He was driven to Aviano Air Base, a joint US-Italian installation, where he boarded a small plane for a flight that lasted an hour and a half. As Nasr tried to resist, the beatings continued on the plane. "I was bewildered," he told the court. "I didn't understand what was happening around me."

At a US base in Germany, Nasr was led into a "large, cold room." His hands were untied and the hood was taken off. He saw a group of fifteen to twenty men all wearing masks and Special Forces uniforms. The men wrapped his entire head and face with duct tape and cut holes over his nose and mouth so he could breathe. He was stripped of his clothes and dressed in a jumpsuit, and his arms and legs were shackled. He was then hustled onto another plane. By that point, Nasr had stopped resisting--and the beating had ended. "I had given up," he said. "I was resigned to my fate."

After the plane landed at Cairo airport on February 18, 2003, a guard on the tarmac told Nasr, "You have arrived in Egypt, Abu Omar." Still blindfolded and shackled, he was stuffed into another van and driven to the Mukhabarat (secret police) headquarters outside Cairo. Guards removed the duct tape from his head and face, allowing his hair and beard to take their form. He was escorted into a room by an Egyptian security official who told him that "two pashas" wanted to speak with him.

Nasr testified that he recognized one of the men as Egypt's interior minister. The other man appeared to be an American. "Only the Egyptian spoke," Nasr said. "He offered me to become an informant. If I accepted, he said, I would be returned to Italy right away before anyone noticed my disappearance." Nasr refused, and the two men left. That's when the torture began. He testified that he was beaten with wooden sticks, given electric shocks and hung upside down. He was sometimes shackled to an iron rack, nicknamed "the Bride" and zapped with stun guns.

At other times, Nasr testified, he was tied to a wet mattress on the floor. To prevent him from moving, a guard sat on a wooden chair on top of Nasr's shoulders. Another interrogator would then flip a switch, sending jolts of electricity into the mattress coils. For most of his four years in prison, Nasr was kept in solitary confinement. He testified that his cell had no toilet and no lights, and "roaches and rats walked across my body."

Nasr spent the first seven months at the Mukhabarat prison. He was then sent to a State Security prison, where he was regularly tortured during interrogations. Throughout this time, Zayyat was trying to confirm that Nasr was in Egyptian custody. "I was looking for him in the prisons where they keep political detainees. But I found nothing," Zayyat said. "I filed requests for information from the courts. Nothing."

A year after Nasr's abduction, Zayyat finally established his presence in Egypt when several Islamists detained in State Security told the lawyer that they had seen Nasr being moved around the prison. "It took one year to confirm that he was here," Zayyat said, shaking his head. "One year! And I still didn't receive any official word."

In March 2004 Zayyat filed a petition at the appeals court in Cairo seeking Nasr's release. The prosecutors filed a response, in which they sought to detain the cleric for "membership in an illegal organization"--usually a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood or Egypt's two violent Islamist groups, Gama'a Islamiya (Islamic Group) or Islamic Jihad. Prosecutors argued that Nasr was active in the Gama'a, which helped assassinate President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and later waged a bloody seven-year campaign to topple the government. But the court did not find the evidence sufficient, and it ordered Nasr's release. When I asked Zayyat if he had a copy of the court's decision, he laughed, saying, "We don't have those kinds of laws in this country."

In April 2004 State Security agents drove Nasr to his family's home in Alexandria. They told him to keep quiet if he wanted to stay out of prison. But Nasr immediately called his wife and friends in Milan and described his abduction in detail. He did not know that Italian prosecutors had tapped the phones at his home and mosque in Milan as part of their investigation into the CIA plot. Those wiretaps provided Italian investigators with their first full account of Nasr's case. When word got back to Egyptian authorities that Nasr was talking, he was arrested again.

"When they brought me back to State Security, they said, 'We warned you not to talk with anyone, but you violated our deal,'" Nasr testified. "'So now we're going to keep you.'"

During this second imprisonment, Nasr was held under Egypt's emergency laws--imposed by President Hosni Mubarak soon after Sadat's assassination and never rescinded--which allow authorities to hold anyone without charge for thirty days. But the police and intelligence agencies can renew the thirty-day period with little effort, turning it into indefinite detention. Nasr testified that he wasn't tortured as badly during his second stint, but he was again placed in solitary. Despairing and worried that he would never be released, he twice tried to commit suicide.

When Zayyat learned that his client was arrested again, he began filing monthly petitions for his release. "Every time the thirty-day period would expire, I would submit another petition," he said. "It would say, This person is being held without charge, and there's nothing to justify his detention." In the end, it was one of these procedural petitions--and, undoubtedly, the growing international scandal--that won Nasr's release.

On February 22 Nasr appeared unexpectedly at the trial of an Egyptian blogger in Alexandria [see Negar Azimi, "Bloggers Against Torture," February 19]. In front of the TV cameras, he pulled back his sleeves to show evidence of the torture he'd endured: scars on his wrists and ankles. He said there were more scars on his stomach and other parts of his body that he was too embarrassed to show. "I don't want any more trouble with anyone," he said. "My body cannot bear any more prison and torture." When journalists asked him for more details, he walked away, saying he feared going back to prison.

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