By Giovanni Giacalone
The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday condemned Italy over the 2003 kidnapping by the CIA of an Egyptian preacher who had been granted political asylum by Italian authorities two years before. Italy will now have to indemnify Abu Omar with 85 thousand euros.
Hassan Mustafa Usama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was "abducted" while walking in via Guerzoni, not far from the Centro Culturale Islamico of viale Jenner, in Milan and taken to a US air force base in Germany and then to Egypt, it said, finding Italy guilty of numerous human rights violations over the case. Abu Omar was in fact tortured in an Egyptian prison, according to his lawyers.
According to the Court, the Italian authorities were aware that the applicant had been a victim of an extraordinary rendition operation which had begun with his abduction in Italy and had continued with his transfer abroad and it also added that "the legitimate principle of 'state secrecy' had clearly been applied by the Italian executive in order to ensure that those responsible did not have to answer for their actions".
Italy has denied any type of involvement in the capture of Abu Omar, who currently lives in Egypt and was also convicted in absentia and sentenced to six years by an Italian court in 2013.
Twenty-three Americans, including 22 CIA agents, were convicted in absentia 2009 by an Italian court over the 2003 abduction. The trial in Italy was one of the world's biggest to take aim at Washington's extraordinary renditions program.
On Februrary 17th 2003, Abu Omar was apprehended by alleged CIA personnel while walking towards the Centro Culturale Islamico (CCI) to attend noon prayer and pushed into a van by two people who apparently spoke Italian. He was taken to Aviano's US airforce base, loaded into a plane and flown to Ramstein's base in Germany where he boarded a second plane that took him to Egypt where he was imprisoned and tortured in Tura prison.
In 2007 Abu Omar was released and exposed the tortures that he had been exposed to, while in custody, such as electrocution, the passage between rooms with very high and low temperature and the exposure to extremely loud noises that damaged his ears.
The figure of Abu Omar
At this point a question arises: who was Abu Omar? Why was he considered so dangerous to US national security?
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was an Islamist was linked to the Egyptian jihadist group Gamaa al-Islamiyya which, between 1992 and 1998, was responsible for the death of hundreds of Egyptian policemen and soldiers, civilians and tourists. The group was outlawed in the US, Russia and the EU.
During the early '80s Abu Omar served time in Egyptian prisons before mysteriously disappearing and reappearing in a Pakistan training camp where jihadists were trained to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
According to analyst Chris Deliso, in the '90s Abu Omar moves to the Balkans, precisely in Albania, where he was hired by an NGO named Human Relief and Construction Agency. Nothing new as it was notorious that several jihadists linked to al-Qaeda were being hired at the time by NGOs in the Balkans; for instance Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of the current leader of al-Qaeda, was hired by IIRO.
This was just the last phase of a longer process which began in the early '90s after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan which left many Arab jihadists "unemployed". Consequently, in order to avoid the possibility that they would return to their home countries to wage holy war, they were exploited in Bosnia against the Serbs. Many of them joined the "el-Mudzahid" unit in Zenica while others were enrolled in "humanitarian organizations" funded by Gulf countries who had an interest in keeping them far away from home.
As for Abu Omar, he did not have a "cv" that made him an outstanding fighter or a particularly dangerous individual, but according to Deliso, an interesting episode occurred on August 27th 1995 in Tirana, when he was apprehended by Albanian security (SHIK), on behalf of the CIA, and after one week of custody he accepted to become an informer for them, revealing precious information on jihadist activities in Albania.
However the cooperation between Abu Omar and the SHIK/CIA only lasted a few weeks as the preacher suddenly left Albania, presumably for Turkey and Romania, where he did not manage to obtain political asylum.
Abu Omar then returned to Albania and from there to Germany where he did not manage to obtain an asylum for his wife. In 1997 he arrived in Milan where he began attending the Islamic centers in viale Jenner and via Quaranta, attracting the attention of the Italian authorities and of the CIA. In 2001 he was granted political asylum even though he was also under investigation in a separate inquiry for international terrorism and was kept under constant surveillance by Italian authorities.
It is also important to keep in mind that Centro Culturale Islamico (CCI) in viale Jenner had been at the center of investigations by Italian police during the Bosnian war (1992-95) as it had become a major base for the support of jihadists in Zenica. The former imam of CCI, Anwar Shabaan, was head of the "el-Mudzahid" unit and as mysteriously killed by Croatian HVO the day after the signing of the Dayton agreement.
According to a 2013 investigation by Italian newspaper La Stampa, the capture of Abu Omar was ordered by the CIA station manager in Rome, Jeff Castelli, who manage to obtain the "green light from CIA chief George Tenet and Condoleza Rice, even without clear evidence of Abu Omar's perilousness, as claimed by former intelligence interpreter Sabrina De Sousa, who was in charge of translations and was also implied in the Abu Omar apprehension.
According to de Sousa, the director of the operation was Castelli, who exaggerated the threat linked to Abu Omar in order to obtain the "go-ahead" from Italian intelligence. Even though Milan's CIA station manager "Robert Seldom Lady" was extremely doubtful on Abu Omar being a serious threat, considering that he was also being monitored by Italian police, Jeff Castelli kept pressuring Italian Rome's intelligence.
According to La Stampa "In 2002 Castelli pressured Nicolò Pollari, former SISMI head, to apprehend Abu Omar, but Pollari refused, stating that it would have been an illegal operation without the judges' permission. Pollari also wanted to wait the Intelligence reform that was supposed to be discussed in Parliament and that would have given more power to SISMI. At that point Castelli was in trouble as his superiors in Langley insisted that SISMI and premier Berlusconi had to accept, otherwise it would not have been possible to get the "green-light" from the US government. Castelli needed an arrest warrant and he managed to get it from Egypt and even though the US government was still worried about the potential consequences for US agents implied in the case, it relied on Castelli's reassurance that in the worst case they would be expelled from Italy and SISMI would have helped on that. Sabrina de Sousa claimed that for years she tried to explain how things really occurred, writing to Hilary Clinton and Eric Holer, but nobody listened to her.
The rest of the story is well-known. On February 4, 2013, Castelli was convicted to seven years in prison, by a Milan court, along with three other CIA officials. None of the convicted US officials were present at the trial and none of them have been extradited to Italy.
Why was Abu Omar considered such a priority for some people inside the US intelligence sector? It is interesting to see that the Egyptian preacher not only had managed to disappear from Egyptian prisons in the '80s in order to reappear in anti-Soviet training camps in Pakistan, but he was later detected in Albania where he already had some "close-encounters" with Intelligence networks. Facts that are worth pondering about.
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