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.)