On a chilly morning in February 2003 as he was walking to his mosque, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was whisked off the Via Guerzoni in Milan, tossed into the back of a van and driven to a NATO air base in Aviano, Italy. From there, Abu Omar, as he’s commonly known, was flown by Learjet to Germany and then to Cairo where he was allegedly tortured for seven months, according to Amnesty International, which has an open case file on his kidnapping.
Three years ago an Italian court convicted 23 Americans—22 CIA employees and an Air Force colonel—in absentia for the abduction and gave them prison sentences of five to nine years. Two Italian secret service officials were also convicted for failing to alert the proper authorities that the kidnapping was about to take place (the Italians’ convictions were later overturned).
Earlier this week, Italy’s highest court upheld the Americans’ convictions and ordered a retrial for the Italian agents. They also ordered each of the 23 Americans to pay Abu Omar €1 million and each pay his wife €500,000. Yet because the Italian government has never asked for the Americans to be extradited, it is unlikely that Abu Omar and his wife will ever receive financial compensation from the United States government.
Nevertheless, the decision marked the first time that the U.S.’s controversial program of extraordinary rendition had been successfully challenged in court. The program, which was developed under the leadership of former President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Centers, permitted suspected terrorists to be taken to countries where torture was tolerated. The program has since ended.
The prosecutor in charge of the retrial of the Italian agents says he hopes the Italian Ministry of Justice eventually demands that the 23 Americans be extradited. But many of the agents worked under false identities and thus their documents are untraceable. And a request for the Americans to be returned to Italy to serve their sentences would surely cause a tense situation between the two governments.
"The whole trial has focused on lower-level officials and really took away the focus on who should be accountable, the State Department officials and the CIA officials around in 2003,” said Sabrina de Sousa, one of the convicted Italian agents, in an interview with the Associated Press.
“The United States has now buried a really bad chapter that has tarnished U.S. history. This is exactly what creates anti-American sentiment around the world.”
Back in 2003, Abu Omar—an Egyptian who fled to Italy with his wife—was well known to the Italian secret service: they tapped his phones and followed him, fearing he was recruiting jihadis to go and fight against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. On that chilly morning in February, the Italians expected Abu Omar to arrive at morning prayers as he usually did, and when he did not show up, they immediately sent their own agents to search for him. Little did they know he had been abducted by the CIA.
“They threw me on the floor of the car,” Abu Omar later told Amnesty International. “My nose and mouth were bleeding. I was injured in my knee and my right hand. They threw me very harshly. Then they covered my face with the hat I was wearing until I was completely hooded and could not see anything.”
It only got worse for Abu Omar. In 2004 the Egyptians released him (they couldn’t keep him behind bars on American suspicions alone), and afterward he told human-rights workers what had ensued while in Egyptian custody: “I was hung like slaughtered cattle, head down, feet up, hands tied behind my back, feet also tied together, and I was exposed to electric shocks all over my body and especially the head area to weaken the brain and paralyze it and in the nipples and my genitals and my penis and I was beaten in my genitals with a stick and they were squeezed if I refused to answer.”
According to Amnesty International, three years after his release, Abu Omar was again summoned by the Egyptian police and told not to talk to media or risk returning to prison.
Documents made public after the ruling earlier this week show that the convicted Americans left a trail of their own as they prepared to capture Abu Omar. Airline tickets and luxury hotel receipts left by 10 of the CIA operatives who were part of the advance rendition operation paint a picture that the life of a spy isn’t all work and no play.
The preparations made by the rendition team, which arrived a few weeks before Abu Omar was kidnapped, included a trip to the Italian Riviera to celebrate one agent’s 30th birthday and a curious romantic rendezvous in the Swiss Alps where, according to hotel receipts, agents coupled up.
The CIA’s Milan chief, Robert Seldon Lady, was even fixing up a luxury villa when the Abu Omar affair forced him to leave the country. The villa was later sold by the Italian state in 2009 to an anonymous buyer. The money from the sale went to Abu Omar and his family in Egypt.