Junio 19, 2007

Milan judge suspends trial challenging CIA extraordinary renditions

By Colleen Barry, Associated Press Writer
Published: 19 June 2007

An Italian judge yesterday suspended the first trial involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program until the country's highest court can rule on the government's challenge that evidence used to build the case was classified.

The Italian government has asked the Constitutional Court to throw out the indictments against the 26 American defendants, all but one identified by prosecutors as CIA agents. They are accused of kidnapping an Egyptian terror suspect from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003.

In an argument that would effectively scuttle the case, state lawyers have said that the judge who issued the indictments unlawfully relied on state secrets to justify the charges. The high court is to also hear another similar challenge saying prosecutors had gone too far by wiretapping phone conversations of Italian secret service agents.

The 26 Americans have left Italy, and a senior US official has said they would not be turned over for prosecution even if Rome requests it. The government has not yet responded to prosecutors' requests to seek their extradition, and the justice minister has indicated that the Constitutional Court's ruling would be a key factor.

On Monday, Judge Oscar Magi suspended the trial until Oct. 24, agreeing to a request by the defense to put the trial on hold until the Constitutional Court's ruling, which is expected on Oct. 19.

The ruling will indicate whether the trial will have the power to publicly air details of the US renditions - moving terrorism suspects from country to country without public legal proceedings.

The judge also stopped the clock on the statute of limitations until the trial reconvenes. The statute of limitations on the charge of abduction with aggravating circumstances is 12½ years from the date of the crime; four years and four months have elapsed.

"It's a very clean decision," said Alessia Sorgato, a lawyer for several American defendants. "It's like sealing the case in Tupperware and putting it in the freezer."

Italian prosecutors say Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was abducted in an operation coordinated by the CIA and Italian intelligence, then transferred to US bases in Italy and Germany before being moved to Egypt, where he was imprisoned for four years. Nasr, who was released Feb. 11, said he was tortured.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro argued vigorously that the court must continue its deliberations despite the pending case in the highest court, denying that any state secrets were involved in the preparation of the case and expressing confidence that the Constitutional Court's decision would back him up.

Prosecutors said the decision effectively gives the government inordinate powers to interfere with the justice system. "Is it possible to have a system in which a trial can be suspended anytime any government decides to launch a conflict?" co-prosecutor Ferdinando Pomarici said.

Besides the Americans, seven Italians also were indicted in the case, including Nicolo Pollari, the former chief of military intelligence. Pollari has denied any involvement by Italian intelligence in the abduction.

Posted by marga at 5:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Junio 8, 2007

Italy: The war on terror: Inside the dark world of rendition


The war on terror: Inside the dark world of rendition

An Italian court will today begin hearing a case against 26 American agents accused of kidnapping the Imam of Milan's most important mosque. The case promises to expose the truth about America's rendition policy.

By Peter Popham and Jerome Taylor
Published: 08 June 2007

Shortly before noon on 17 February 2003, the bulky, bearded figure of the Imam of Milan's most important mosque, Abu Omar, was noticed by a woman called Merfat Rezk.

Wearing traditional Arab dress, he was walking down Via Guerzoni towards his mosque. Ms Rezk also saw a man of European appearance wearing sunglasses and standing on the street, talking into a mobile phone. Moments later there was a loud bang, and a light-coloured van that had been parked across the pavement took off at high speed. The Arabic looking man and the man with sunglasses were nowhere to be seen.

Inside the van, the Egyptian cleric was confronted by men "wearing uniforms similar to those worn by the special forces", as he later wrote, men "who never spoke" but blindfolded his eyes and bound him hand and foot with gaffer tape. When he put up a fight, he was "severely beaten", until he began to foam at the mouth and became incontinent.

The van took him at speed to the Aviano airbase at the foot of the Alps, shared by the US and Italian militaries, where in a "small grey room" he was confronted by his captors. "They stood me upright and untied the plastic tape from my feet," he wrote. "Then they started to remove my clothes and the tape that bound my hands. I guess they used some instruments to tear off my clothes because I did not feel their hands touch me.

"They put new clothes on me and removed the blindfold... In a matter of seconds they took photographs of me and covered both my head and face with a wide blindfold that only exposed my nose and mouth. They also tied my hands to my back and feet with plastic ropes. I was then taken on to an aeroplane."

The imam, whose full name is Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, had become a victim of the process known as "extraordinary rendition", the kidnapping of suspected terrorists from their homes in Europe and rapid removal to countries known for their brutal prison regimes.

From Italy, Mr Nasr was flown to Germany and then to Cairo.

A "great Pasha", in Mr Nasr's words, a high-ranking official, asked him if he was willing to return to Italy as an informer. When he refused he was taken to a notorious Cairo prison and tortured. "I was hung like slaughtered cattle," he wrote, "head down, feet up, hands tied behind my back, feet tied together, and I was exposed to electric shocks all over my body." His incarceration lasted for four years.

The American CIA agents accused of kidnapping Mr Nasr go on trial in Milan today. It is the first time in living memory that CIA agents have been prosecuted for non-espionage offences. None of the 26 Americans, most of them indicted under the false names on the passports they used to enter Italy, will be in court for the trial. None of them will go to prison if convicted. But what the trial will do is to expose in detail the extraordinary arrogance of the remaining superpower, its readiness to grab people legally resident in Europe, immobilise and manacle them and fly them off to be tortured.

Mr Nasr had come face to face, briefly and shockingly, with one of the tough, highly professional and lavishly pampered American special forces teams that brought the War on Terror - in its guerrilla manifestation - to the streets of Europe's cities.

"One of the primary European objections to the concept of a 'war' on terrorism," wrote David Ruivkin Jnr and Lee Casey in The New York Times earlier this year, "is the fear that US forces will treat Europe as a battlefield... Extraordinary rendition gets uncomfortably close to US military operations on European streets."

The phrase and the fact of extraordinary rendition became public knowledge only in 2003, but American anti-terrorism units had been forcibly extraditing suspected Islamists to states with records of torture and extrajudicial executions long before 9/11. The deployment of secret paramilitary squads move captives in CIA-owned or financed planes was first perfected during the late 1990s in the Balkans.

The first known rendition by the US government to a third country with a record of torture occurred in 1995 when an Egyptian Islamist, Talaat Fouad Qassem, went missing while visiting Croatia. Mr Qassem, the leader of a banned Islamic group in Egypt, had been sentenced to death in absentia three years earlier by a military tribunal. The Croatian authorities had originally apprehended Mr Qassem on an immigration charge, but his transport to Egypt was arranged by the US and he was interrogated by Americans on board a ship in the Adriatic before sending him to Cairo's torturers.

Three years later, following reports that an Egyptian terrorist cell based in Albania were planning to attack US embassies in the region, a CIA paramilitary team arranged the arrest and rendition of a further six Islamic militants to Egypt. Many of them, including Mr Qassem, have not been heard of since. Those who have say they were tortured horrendously.

But it was after the terror attacks on New York and Washington on 9 September 2001, when "the gloves came off", that the phenomenon exploded. As Cofer Black, onetime director of the CIA's counterterrorist unit, put it: "There was a before-9/11 and an after-9/11."

Sweden saw one of the earliest examples of a post-9/11 rendition, three months after the attacks on the US. Two Egyptian nationals who were claiming asylum there, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zery, suddenly disappeared on 18 December 2001. They were flown back to Egypt. Subsequently both said they were tortured.

All those who have lived to tell the tale of the rendition process have given remarkably similar accounts of the brutal, but slick, well-rehearsed procedure that leaves a detainee trussed up and and incapacitated within three to five minutes.

Clara Gutteridge, from the charity Reprieve, which provides legal help for many of them, says the paramilitary teams are highly trained professionals. "They are not necessarily the same people each time," she says. "But what we do see is the 'rendition methodology' ... Namely, a team of 12 to 13 people, dressed in black T-shirts, wearing ski masks and Timberland boots who carry out the actual rendition. The speed at which they operate, the uniformity of the process, and the general level of professionalism is striking. Let's not forget that what they are doing is in plain language kidnap and forcible transfer to torture.

"As we have no reason to believe that any of our clients were rendered by the same team of people, there's already potential for multiple investigations... and the chain of command responsibility goes right to the top."

And when these seasoned teams have done their work, they kick back. Three of the team who who "boosted" Mr Qassem from Milan checked into the Hilton on Via Luigi Galvani, where rooms cost about £160 a night. Others stayed in the Marriott, Sheraton and Westin hotels. Some of them even presented their frequent-flier ID cards for endorsement. The combined hotel bill for the team's short stay in the city was at least $150,000 (£78,000).

Renditions have been happening at least as far back as the Reagan administration. From the point of view of other countries, they are an offensive demonstrations of American prepotency whenever and wherever they happen.

Arguably there are situations where they are justifiable - and fully legal under American law. When Ramzi Yousef, the man who bombed the World Trade Centre in 1993 and planned to blow up a dozen American jet liners over the Pacific, was seized in Islamabad, the Pakistani government was happy to see him flown secretly to the US. "In a perfect world," wrote Daniel Benjamin in Slate, "renditions would not be necessary. But renditions reflect the reality that dangerous people turn up with some frequency in countries with inadequate legal systems that need to shield their co-operation with the United States from domestic opposition."

But then renditions became a way of outsourcing torture. And not the "handful of the worst terrorists in the planet" of George Tenet's description, but unknown dozens, perhaps hundreds, maybe more than a thousand people. Ahmed Nazief, the Egyptian prime minister, says he is aware of "60 to 70" cases in which Egyptian nationals were seized abroad and flown to Egypt. An investigation by the European Parliament revealed that the CIA had operated more than 1,000 flights through European airspace since 2001.

Amnesty International and other human rights organisations said yesterday that extraordinary renditions continues. They released the names of 39 people who they claim have passed through American custody but whose whereabouts are unknown. For the innocent the story is a tragedy. Even for the non-innocent it is a blazing example of American hypocrisy.

But there is another question to be asked. Did it make America, and the rest of the West, any safer? In the case of Mr Nasr from Milan the answer seems to be a resounding no. Mr Nasr had been given refugee status in Italy in 1997 but the Italian secret services were suspicious of him, and his phones and his home were comprehensively bugged. "We knew everything, everything, everything Abu Omar was up to," a senior Italian law enforcement officer told The Chicago Tribune. One reason Mr Nasr's rendition was carried out in such strict secrecy was to avoid alerting the Italians who were bugging him.

Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA's former Milan chief and the only agent to have gone on the record about the Imam Abu Omar case, claims that he opposed the abduction from the start, but was overruled by the station chief in in Rome; the man's name has never been released, but colleagues describe him as an incense-burning Buddhist, an eccentric figure who maintains a shrine to Jimi Hendrix at the CIA's headquarters.

At the Milan trial, the prosecutor, Armando Spataro, will produce evidence to prove that the Rome CIA chief overstated the threat Mr Nasr posed, in order to get approval for the rendition from his superiors.

"We never got any good [intelligence] product from a rendition," one senior CIA officer told The Chicago Tribune.

The CIA also ruptured a good working relationship with their Italian counterparts. The damage to those relationships is something the CIA broods about now. "That is something I do worry about," Tyler Drumheller, the CIA's chief of covert operations in Europe until 2005, said. "The most important thing, I believe, is that we have to work seamlessly with the European services and all round the world. I admit sometimes we're like a bull in a china shop."

They disappeared, but lived to tell the tale

Khaled al-Masri

The German citizen of Lebanese descent was abducted from Macedonia in early 2003 and rendered to Afghanistan. His "crime" was to share a name with a wanted militant. Mr Masri spent more than a year in Kabul's notorious secret prisons before the US realised they had arrested the wrong person

Abu Omar

Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, was under investigation by Italian security for links to terrorism when the CIA kidnapped him in Milan and flew him to his native Egypt in February 2003 where he says he was tortured. His kidnap led to indictments being issued against 26 Americans.

Binyam Muhammad

The Eritrean national and British resident Binyam Muhammad was rendered by the CIA on multiple occasions. He was arrested in Pakistan in April 2002 then was subsequently flown to prisons in Afghanistan and later Morocco where he claims he was severely tortured.

Maher Arar

The rendition of the Canadian national of Syrian origin from New York to Syria where he was horrifically tortured has become one of the best documented examples of an innocent victim of the CIA's program. Both the Canadian and Syrian governments have publicly cleared Mr Arar of any links to terrorism

Posted by marga at 9:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack