Global Policy Forum

Italy Arrests 2 in Kidnapping of Imam in '03


By Stephen Grey and Elisabetta Povoledo

New York Times
July 6, 2006

Two officials with the were arrested Wednesday in the kidnapping of a radical Egyptian cleric here in 2003. It was the first indication that Italian intelligence agents might have been directly involved in what prosecutors say was an American-led operation to detain and interrogate the imam. Prosecutors also sought the arrest of three operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency and an employee of the American military airbase at Aviano, Italy. Last year, Italian prosecutors charged 22 other Americans, who were employed by or linked to the C.I.A., with involvement in the abduction of the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. The government said it would "collaborate fully" with the investigation and expressed its "trust in the institutional loyalty" of the secret services. In the past, the government has denied any knowledge of or involvement in the kidnapping.

Last month Germany's federal intelligence service, the BND, said it knew about the American seizure of a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, in December 2003 in Macedonia and his detention in Afghanistan, where, he said, he was tortured. Previously, the German government had said it did not learn about the abduction until May 2004. The practice of "extraordinary rendition," which involves seizing a terrorism suspect and transferring him to another country for interrogation, has caused a furor in Europe. This is part of a backlash against American tactics in fighting terrorism, some of which have involved secret cooperation by European governments or intelligence services.

European governments have been under intense pressure to disclose any knowledge of these renditions, but the Milan case is the first where a foreign government has filed criminal charges against Americans for a counterterrorism operation. A senior Italian law enforcement official in Milan said the Italians and Americans charged on Wednesday were all accused of direct involvement in the kidnapping. The official said the Italian intelligence agents — Marco Mancini, the current head of military counterespionage, and his predecessor at the time of the abduction, Gustavo Pignero — helped plan and carry out the kidnapping. One witness told prosecutors that "three or four people" at the scene of the abduction, on Feb. 17, 2003, spoke fluent Italian.

The official refused to be identified because he did not have permission to speak publicly. The arrests will put pressure on the new government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi to decide whether to back the efforts of the Milan prosecutor, which the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi had opposed.

Lawyers who expect to be involved in defending those charged said they had not received documents from the prosecutors and thus could not comment on the allegations. A C.I.A. spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, declined to comment.

Several former American intelligence officials have said that the C.I.A. operatives who took part in the abduction of the Egyptian left Italy long ago and that the agency's station chief in Rome at the time is now stationed elsewhere. These officials have said that the operation was conducted with the full knowledge of the Italian intelligence service and that the station chief briefed his Italian counterpart about the plans during a meeting in 2003. They said the Italian intelligence official gave his implicit approval.

The cleric, Mr. Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was picked up while walking on a street near his home, taken to a northern Italian military air base, then flown to Egypt. At one point he was released and in a call to relatives complained that he had been tortured. He was quickly rearrested, and is apparently still in Egypt. Silvio Sircana, a spokesman for the Italian government, said several Italian intelligence agents had been questioned Wednesday. "They guaranteed their complete noninvolvement in the episode," he said. On several occasions, Nicolí² Pollari, the head of the intelligence agency, has testified that his agency played no part in the abduction.

Mr. Berlusconi, who lost an election in April, repeatedly denied having any knowledge of such an operation. His government also refused to approve extradition requests by Milanese prosecutors last year against the 22 Americans suspected of involvement. The Americans had left Italy before they were charged.

Mr. Prodi's new government is less supportive of the war in Iraq than was Mr. Berlusconi's. But Massimo Brutti, who oversees judicial issues for the largest party in the governing majority, the Democrats of the Left, said the change in government had not affected the decision to issue the arrest warrants. Mr. Brutti, who was once a member of the parliamentary committee overseeing the secret services, said in a telephone interview: "I categorically exclude that. The judiciary is absolutely independent and the current initiative has nothing to do with the government."

According to Italian judicial officials in Milan, the arrest of the Italians followed the testimony earlier this year of a military police officer. He told prosecutors in Milan that the C.I.A. had used him to perform a routine document check of Abu Omar on the street, a ruse to distract him moments before he was abducted.

The police in Milan learned the identity of the Americans charged by tracing cellphones used during the kidnapping, and linked some phones to Aviano Air Base. But there were other cellphones identified near the scene that the police now say were used by Italian officers who accompanied Abu Omar to Aviano.

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