The whereabouts of the 13 CIA agents is unknown
There are fresh tensions in Europe over the United States’ war on terrorism. This week, an Italian magistrate issued arrest warrants for 13 alleged agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), accusing them of kidnapping a radical Muslim cleric in Milan and flying him to Egypt where he reportedly was tortured. It is not the first time U.S. agents in Europe have been suspected of engaging in "rendition" -- apprehending alleged terrorists wherever they may be and transporting them for interrogation to another country, often one that uses torture.
Prague, 29 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On 17 February 2003, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr was walking to a Milan mosque for midday prayers when he was sprayed in the face with chemicals and shoved into a van.
He hasn’t been seen since.
Italian magistrates say the radical Muslim cleric -- whom the United States believes may be a terrorist -- was flown from the U.S. military base at Aviano in northern Italy to his native Egypt. In Cairo, they say he was tortured in a bid to extract information about his alleged activities. He presumably remains behind bars.
Now, Italian opposition politicians are demanding to know what the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi knew about the case.
The Italian Green Party’s Paolo Cento spoke by phone with RFE/RL from the lower house Chamber of Deputies in Rome.
“Clearly, we are faced with a grave incident without precedent, where a foreign military corps acted on Italian national territory, removing a person from ordinary Italian justice. We want to know if the government knew about this, or whether our secret services acted together with the American agents, and if not, what the Italian government intends to do to protect our national sovereignty -- because clearly this was an obvious violation of our national sovereignty,” Cento said.
["The Washington Post" reported on 30 June that, according to unidentified CIA officials in Rome, the U.S. spy agency informed senior officials in Italy's secret services of its plans prior to seizing the radical cleric.]
Magistrates last week ordered the arrest of 13 agents of the CIA for their alleged role in Nasr's kidnapping.
Nasr is one of an estimated 150 suspects who has been subjected to the U.S. program of “extraordinary rendition” since the attacks on America of September 2001.
The policy is controversial as it might violate laws in the nations where suspects are seized. It has also come under criticism because it allows suspects to be transported for interrogation to third countries, such as Uzbekistan and Egypt, known for practicing torture.
In a 213-page report detailing the latest case, Italian judges cited transcripts of an intercepted phone call between Nasr and his wife. Nasr spoke of being hung upside down and subjected to extreme temperatures and loud noises that damaged his hearing.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have strongly criticized the policy. But U.S. officials defend the program, adding that they do not approve of torture and that all countries where suspects are sent for interrogation have promised Washington to respect human rights.
U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the issue last April in Washington.
“We operate within the law and we send people to countries where they say they’re not going to torture people. But let me say something: The United States government has an obligation to protect the American people. It’s in our country’s interests to find those who would do harm to us,” Bush said.
In previous rendition cases, U.S. agents with cooperation from the Swedish secret services seized two Egyptian nationals in Sweden in late 2001 and flew them to Cairo. The suspects claimed they were tortured. And in late 2003, a German national was seized in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan for interrogation. He also claims he was tortured and was later freed after going on a hunger strike.
Official investigations in both Sweden and Germany have been opened into these cases, which represent another source of tension in Europe over U.S. methods in the war on terror.
European investigators have also complained of a lack of access to sensitive information from U.S. officials. In Germany, the 2004 conviction of man accused of collaborating with the September 11 hijackers crumbled on appeal after judges say U.S. officials failed to provide vital evidence. The case is now being retried.
Such cases have sparked open anger in much of Europe toward the United States.
But the situation appears different in Spain, which has been conducting its own terror investigation into the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Madrid is trying to smooth its relations with Washington -- despite the Bush administration's refusal to grant Spanish investigators access to Al-Qaeda suspects.
Jose Manuel Suarez Robledano, a spokesman for the Spanish Professional Association of Magistrates, tells RFE/RL the mood in Madrid has changed since the bombings, which were followed by harsh public criticism of the United States and a withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.
Robledano says there is a lot of concern in Madrid now not to upset relations with Washington.
“At the moment, from what can be gleaned from the media, there is no motive for complaints. And moreover, from the official level what is perceived is an intention to draw closer to the North American government. Then, it should be mentioned that the new U.S. ambassador took office here a few days ago, and the comments were mutually about the friendship of the two governments,” Robledano said.
Anti-American sentiment remains particularly high in Italy, which has been on the receiving end of a series of blows involving the U.S. military. Italian secret agent Nicola Calipari was killed in March by U.S. forces in Iraq. In 1998, 20 tourists were killed when a U.S. fighter jet accidentally struck the cable of a cable car in the Italian Alps.
Cento, the Italian Green Party parliamentarian, says Italians felt victimized in all these cases. And while underscoring the importance of Italy’s historic friendship with America, he said many people in the country are urging a review of its relations with Washington.
“There’s no doubt that such grave episodes like this one and others in recent years risk damaging this relationship of trust. Therefore, both sides must sit down around a table to review the terms of our relationship, in particular regarding Italian jurisdiction over crimes committed on our territory by American citizens, and the bilateral accords that govern the use of the U.S. military bases here,” Cento said.
In Milan, meanwhile, investigators have called Nasr’s disappearance a blow to their own terrorism probe. Investigators say that Nasr had been organizing a network of militants at the time of his abduction.
The Italian daily “La Repubblica” speculated yesterday that the kidnapping could not have been pulled off with at least tacit Italian approval. Whether such approval existed is likely to be the main question facing government officials, who are due to appear in parliament tomorrow.
The whereabouts of the 13 CIA agents is unclear. Italian magistrates have listed their leader as Robert Lady, the former U.S. consul in Milan.
The report says cell phone records show Lady was in Egypt for three weeks after Nasr’s kidnapping. It says that was likely when Nasr was being tortured during interrogations.