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Cleric's story of abduction, torture
"This is how they kidnapped me from Italy ... and how they tortured and imprisoned me in Egypt."
So begins a 6,300-word, handwritten letter, composed in an Egyptian prison cell by radical Muslim cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr. His abduction by the CIA is at the center of an unprecedented judicial proceeding set to open in Italy this week that may ultimately expose to public view one of the agency's most sensitive and controversial operations in its secret war on terror.
In a kidnapping case against 26 Americans and five Italian intelligence operatives, including the one-time CIA chief in Rome and Italy's former top spymaster, Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, will speak to the court through his letter, telling his story for the first time in his own words.
According to Abu Omar's written account, obtained by the Tribune, he was walking to his mosque in Milan on Feb. 17, 2003, when he was stopped on the street by a man who identified himself as a police officer. The cleric wrote that he was pulled into a van, beaten and taken by plane to Egypt.
He described in detail how his Egyptian interrogators tried to get him to agree to become an informer, and he says he refused. What followed, according to his letter, was torture with electric shocks, beatings that caused him to lose the hearing in one ear, and sexual abuse.
For long periods of time, he said in his letter, he was kept in an underground cell "where you cannot distinguish between night and day and the cockroaches and rats and insects walk all over my body night and day."
Abu Omar has been locked away for nearly four years, most of it in Egypt's notorious Torah Prison, some 1,600 miles from the massive Tribunale in Milan, where a preliminary hearing in the case is to begin on Tuesday. Those proceedings could shine the first bright light on the U.S. practice of "rendering" terrorist suspects to other countries for interrogation that allegedly is often accompanied by torture.
Prosecutors in Milan have compiled evidence ranging from hotel and cell phone records to hundreds of hours of wiretapped telephone conversations. Now Abu Omar, through his letter, promises to be a prominent witness in the case.
Abu Omar, 43, is a native Egyptian who fled his homeland when he was young in order to escape what he said was political persecution. He married and had children in Albania and married a second time in Milan. Like uncounted millions of his brethren, he grew increasingly hostile toward Israel and the United States because of perceived injustices to Palestinians and other Muslims.
He was under surveillance by Italian authorities because of his suspected role in helping young European Muslims go to Iraq to take up arms against the expected U.S.-led invasion, which occurred a month after he disappeared from Milan.
While ultimately charged in Italy in April 2005 with helping Muslim fighters make their way to Iraq, Abu Omar had not been charged with a crime in the U.S. or Italy at the time of his abduction. Italian courts are divided on whether the recruiting of "foreign fighters" for a war violates Italy's anti-terrorism laws.
Some human-rights groups have cited Abu Omar's "rendition" as a prime example of the "outsourcing of torture" by the Bush administration. But his case is not unique. Egypt, which has often been accused of torturing prisoners, acknowledges taking custody of 60 to 70 radical Muslims abducted by the CIA.
The Americans charged in the Abu Omar case--25 current and former CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force colonel--are fugitives from Italian justice, and none of them are expected in court for this week's hearing. Prosecutors plan to ask the Milanese court to try the Americans in absentia, and the court is expected to agree.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield declined comment on any aspect of the case. The agency has refused to acknowledge that it played a role in the Milan rendition, or even that it occurred.
Except for a three-week period in 2004 when he was freed by the Egyptian courts for lack of evidence, Abu Omar's contacts with the world have been limited to a few visits from Nabila Ghali, the second of his two Muslim wives, and a handful of telephone conversations with Ghali and his first wife, Marsela Glina, who lives in Albania.
Testimony a surprise
Until recently, prosecutors in Milan assumed they would have to make their case against the 31 defendants without any testimony from Abu Omar, who is charged under a 25-year-old "emergency decree" with posing a danger to the Egyptian state.
After learning that Abu Omar was in Egypt, Milan's deputy public prosecutor, Armando Spataro, repeatedly asked the Egyptian government for permission to question him. When the Egyptians ignored Spataro's initial request, he sent a second one. When that request was ignored, a third followed last February. Spataro assumed his requests were being thrown away.
Then, last April, Abu Omar's Egyptian lawyer, Montasser El Zayat, who has earned a reputation for defending Muslim radicals, received a surprise summons demanding his client's presence before Egypt's chief appellate prosecutor, Sherif El Kady.
According to El Zayat, as a stenographer took notes Abu Omar answered El Kady's questions about his years as a Cairo university student, a brief jail term for political activity, his flight to Albania, and his life in Milan after being granted political asylum in Italy.
Whether Abu Omar's testimony was taken in response to Spataro's requests is not clear. The Egyptian Interior Ministry declines to discuss the case, and no transcript was ever sent to Milan or provided to El Zayat.
When Abu Omar learned from his wife Ghali that his testimony had never reached Italy, he wrote, in a measured Arabic hand, what Ghali refers to as "his memoirs"--his version of the story of his abduction and captivity.
The document is now in the possession of Spataro, who says he has verified its authenticity.
Abu Omar wrote that he was grabbed on the street in Milan and thrown into a van by men who never spoke. When he tried to resist, he wrote, he was "severely beaten" until white foam spewed from his mouth and he became incontinent.
Suddenly, his kidnappers, evidently fearing a heart attack or some other cardiac event, "began to tear at my clothes quickly and one of them began to compress on my heart," performing heart massage.
The crisis averted, Abu Omar was taken to an airport. A short flight was followed by a longer one, which ended in Cairo shortly after 5 a.m.--in time, he wrote, for him to hear the first call for morning prayer echoing across the Egyptian capital.
Abu Omar wrote that he was driven to a building he later identified as the headquarters of the Egyptian intelligence service, where a man his captors described only as a "great Pasha"--a high-ranking official--asked him:
"Do you accept to work with us in exchange for your safe return to Italy?"
After refusing to become an informer, Abu Omar wrote, he was allowed to sleep and provided with some food before being given paper and pen, ordered to write his life story, and shown "many pictures of people in Italy (Egyptians, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, etc.)."
Refusals to answer questions were met with electric shocks, "hand beatings," and threats of rape, Abu Omar claimed. "I was hung like slaughtered cattle," he wrote, "head down, feet up, hands tied behind my back, feet also tied together, and I was exposed to electric shocks all over my body and especially the head area to weaken the brain. ..."
He also described being tied up and placed on a mattress that was hosed down with water and connected to electricity.
Even when he was not being tortured, he wrote, "I was placed near the torture chambers for long periods of time to hear the screams of the tortured and their moans and their howls so that I would collapse psychologically."
According to El Zayat, Abu Omar has tried to commit suicide at least once in captivity.
Although Abu Omar did not mention it in the handwritten statement, his lawyer, El Zayat, said that his client told the Egyptian prosecutor in his earlier testimony that a man who looked, dressed and spoke English like an American had been present during the first several days of his interrogation.
Asked whether the mystery man had been present during the torture as well as the questioning, El Zayat replied in a recent interview here that his client was "not sure."
A former senior CIA official said it was standard procedure following a rendition for a CIA officer to visit the receiving country and assess how the case was proceeding.
Cell phone and hotel reservation records compiled by the Milan prosecutors show that Robert Seldon Lady, then the CIA's chief in Milan, traveled to Cairo four days after Abu Omar arrived here and that Lady stayed for two weeks.
Daria Pesce, an Italian lawyer representing Lady, who is one of the CIA operatives charged in Abu Omar's kidnapping, will say only that his visit to Cairo was "official" CIA business.
Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.