By Peter Popham in Rome
27 June 2005
Senior politicians are calling for a full inquiry into the activities of United States intelligence operatives in Italy, after a Milan judge issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA agents. The agents allegedly abducted a suspected Islamic militant and took him to Egypt for interrogation.
Paolo Cento, a Green party MP who is vice-chairman of the Justice Committee of the lower house of parliament, has demanded an explanation of the episode from both the Italian interior and defence ministers.
"What has emerged from the investigations requires a political clarification," he said. "We want to know if US secret agents are free to operate in Italy, and if that is the case, we want to know how the government will ensure national sovereignty."
In issuing the warrants, Judge Chiara Nobili took an unprecedented stand against the US policy of "extraordinary rendition", popularly known as "outsourcing torture".
The 13, three of them women and one of them allegedly a former US consul in Milan, are said to have seized the Islamic suspected from a street in Milan and flown him to Egypt.
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, an Egyptian national, was the militant imam of a Milan mosque. He had been granted political asylum in Italy, but was being investigated by the Italian authorities for terrorist links. He was seized on 17 February 2003 while walking to his mosque, bundled into a van and driven away.
Mr Nasr was taken to the joint US-Italian air base at Aviano, north of Venice, and flown to Cairo via Germany. Last year he telephoned his wife and friends in Milan after being released and told them that he had been taken to a secret prison in Egypt and tortured with electric shocks.
For many Italians, the behaviour of the CIA agents betrays a contempt for territorial boundaries that leaves them near-speechless. The investigators were able to build up a detailed picture of the Americans' movements because they took no precautions, staying at Milan's most expensive hotels for weeks on end and using Italian cellphones and insecure hotel landlines for long conversations.
Italian investigators are also fuming at the casual way the Americans sabotaged their own investigations. "We supplied them with information about Abu Omar, then they used the information against us, undermining our entire operation against his terrorist network," a senior Italian investigator told The New York Times.
"The American system is of little use to us. We give them what we have, but we are given no useful information that can help us prosecute people."
Guido Salvini, the judge in charge of preliminary investigations in the case, said the abduction "was illegal because it violated Italian sovereignty, but it also had a negative impact on the overall war on terror".
If the CIA had not intervened, he went on, "Abu Omar might be standing trial in Italy now".
Extraordinary rendition, the American practice of exporting foreigners suspected of involvement in terrorism to countries where torture is routine, has been practised since the mid-1990s, but became frequent after the 11 September attacks. Egypt is the most common destination, but suspects have also been sent to Syria, Morocco and Jordan.
The indignation of the Italian authorities has been further fuelled by emerging evidence of an attempted cover-up of the abduction by the CIA, which in 2003 informed Italian anti-terrorism officers that the Milan imam had fled to Bosnia to evade police investigations.