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The Trials of Abu Omar


Wednesday, Mar. 12, 2008

Not only are Italian judges and prosecutors known for their independence, but the country's criminal justice system also allows trials in absentia. Because of these two factors--plus some helpful CIA bungling--a group of Americans, nearly all of them alleged CIA operatives, are now facing trial in Milan.

The trial of 26 Americans officials accused of kidnapping an Egyptian imam known as Abu Omar is set to reconvene today. Nearly five years and one month after Abu Omar was abducted in Milan--snatched off the street, pushed into a white van, beaten, tied up, blindfolded, driven to an airport, and flown to Egypt--the trial of his alleged kidnappers is making slow progress.

Delivered to Cairo as a suspected terrorist in February 2003, Abu Omar spent nearly four years in the custody of the Egyptian intelligence services. He was badly tortured, interrogated at length, sent home briefly and then rearrested, but never prosecuted in Egypt for any crime.

Like the 26 Americans accused of kidnapping him, Abu Omar is now a free man; he was released from prison in February 2007. He lives with his wife and stepson in a small apartment in Alexandria, Egypt, where I visited him last December.

Torture in Egypt

"My life was turned upside down," recounted Abu Omar, whose full name is Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.

"You cannot imagine," he said. "I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks."

"I now have hearing problems--I have to use a hearing aid--I have heart problems; I have stomach problems; I have psychological problems. I'm depressed. I don't want to go out. I stay home most of the time. I take tranquilizers. I don't have a job; most of the day I sit at the computer."

Abu Omar, who was a legal resident in Italy before he was abducted, believes that his physical and psychological problems stem from the terrible abuse he underwent in Egyptian custody. "I was brutally tortured, and I could hear the screams of others who were tortured too."

While in one prison, Abu Omar wrote an 11-page letter that was smuggled out and leaked to the press. "I record my testimony from within my tomb and gravesite," Abu Omar said in the letter. "All I care about with regards to my presence at the [state security prison] is death."

The Practice of Rendition

Just after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, President George W. Bush signed a classified presidential directive giving the CIA expanded authority to arrest, interrogate, detain, and render terrorist suspects arrested abroad. Since that time, the CIA is believed to have rendered terrorism suspects to a number of countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Libya, and Syria.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, under pressure from European allies because of press revelations about CIA activities in Europe, offered a vigorous defense of U.S. rendition practices in December 2005. She asserted that rendition was a "vital tool in combating transnational terrorism," and that the United States "does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture."

Abu Omar cannot say what the purpose of his rendition was, but he can describe his torture in excruciating detail. Of course, torture is a routine practice for Egypt's intelligence services; while Abu Omar's treatment is shocking, it is not surprising.

Trial in Italy

Armando Spataro is the Italian judge who led the investigation of Abu Omar's abduction. Meticulously piecing together hotel, cell phone, and credit card records--and aided by CIA carelessness--Spataro managed to track down the operatives who he believes carried out the kidnapping, as well as others who he believes helped orchestrate it.

Spataro's efforts to prosecute the case have faced heavy-handed official obstruction. The Italian government--first under then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, now under Romano Prodi--has failed to forward his request for the extradition of the American defendants in the case. (There are also several Italian defendants.)

While the Italian justice system offers the possibility of trials in absentia, allowing the case to go forward, the Prodi administration has continued to try to block or delay the trial. Last year, the government claimed that Spataro had broken state secrecy laws during his investigation, and took the case to Italy's constitutional court.

In discussing the prosecution, Abu Omar reserves his anger for the American policy-makers who ordered his rendition, not the operatives who actually carried it out. Still, he awaits a verdict, hoping that the trial sends a strong message that rendition to torture is illegal and unacceptable.

In the meantime, like so many others who spend their days at home in front of the computer, he has started a blog.

Joanne Mariner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch, is the author of an upcoming report on the rendition of terrorism suspects to Jordan.

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