Allegations by an Egyptian who claims to have been kidnapped in Milan, then tortured in Cairo, raise fresh concerns over the practice of extraordinary rendition. Jailan Halawi
, in Cairo, and Samia Nkrumah,
in Rome, report
Prosecutors in Milan announced last week that they are seeking the arrest of 26 Americans believed to be involved in the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian imam, Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, aka Abu Omar. The Americans, believed to be CIA agents, are thought to have received help from Italy's Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI) and two SISMI officers are awaiting trial on charges related to the kidnapping. Abu Omar's kidnapping is believed to have been conducted as part of Washington's policy of extraordinary renditions under which captives are transferred to third countries, in Abu Omar's case Egypt, where they are interrogated, and often tortured.
The Washington Post revealed that Abu Omar had written an 11- page letter describing his 2003 abduction at the hands of the CIA and Italian secret service agents and subsequent torture in Egypt. The document was smuggled out of Egypt and handed to Italian prosecutors.
The Washington Post, which has seen a copy of the document, said Abu Omar "was walking to a mosque in Milan [when he was] stuffed into a van and rushed to Egypt in a covert operation involving spies from three countries...Upon his arrival in Egypt hours later, he said, he was taken into a room by an Egyptian security official who told him that two pashas wanted to speak with him."
The newspaper quoted Abu Omar as saying that "only one spoke, an Egyptian and all he said was, 'Do you want to collaborate with us?'" The second "pasha" appeared to be an American, according to Abu Omar.
Abu Omar's captors offered him a deal: they would allow him to return to Italy if he agreed to become an informant. Nasr said he refused. As a result he was interrogated and physically abused for the next 14 months in two Cairo prisons.
In a telephone interview Abu Omar's wife, Nabila, told Al-Ahram Weekly she was devastated by what she described as her husband's "extended tragedy". She had expected him to be released on Eid Al-Fitr but has since discovered he has been transferred to another prison.
Asked whether she had any idea how her husband's letter had reached Italy, Nabila said: "Honestly, I cannot talk. I am deeply traumatised by my husband's ordeal. For three years speaking to the press has harmed more than it helped. Please consider the trauma I am living and excuse my fear of speech."
According to Abu Omar's lawyer, Montasser El-Zayyat, "there are no charges filed against him and until now we have been given no reasons why he is being detained."
A security official speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, denied all allegations of torture, saying Abu Omar is in prison "for security reasons" and claiming he is a "key figure" in the militant Jihad group.
The source further said that the rendition claims were "ridiculous", saying Abu Omar returned to Egypt "of his own will after years of being on the run."
"Why would someone who had lived peacefully in Italy, who had been granted political asylum, return to a country famous for its torture of Islamist militants," asked a source close to Islamist groups.
El-Zayyat says that Egyptian security had reached a tacit understanding with Abu Omar that he would be released in exchange for signing documents saying he had not been mistreated.
News of his letter to Italian prosecutors claiming he had been subjected to "inhumane" treatment in Egypt "has wasted any chance of his being freed soon" believes his wife.
Meanwhile another Egyptian, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, also known as Mohamed the Egyptian, last week received a 10- year prison sentence from a Milan court. He was convicted of "subversive association aimed at international terrorism," one of the anti-terrorism charges introduced after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.
These recent cases have given rise to concern over their possible impact on Italy's Muslim community. "Regardless of whether such suspects are eventually convicted or absolved, the lasting impact is the link between their religion and terrorist acts," says Hamza Piccardo, of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII).
Piccardo told Al-Ahram Weekly that those implicated are a tiny minority, yet such is the publicity given to these cases that the suspicion arises that anything visibly Islamic is potentially an indoctrination centre for terrorists. A bilingual Arabic- Italian school in Milan was recently closed for a month, re-opening a week ago amid continuing controversy. The Naguib Mahfouz School -- named after the Egyptian literature Nobel laureate who was the target of an Islamist assassination attempt in the early 90s -- is sponsored by the Egyptian Consulate, offering a bilingual curriculum, with only two hours a week of Qur'anic study.