MILAN -- A radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was walking to a Milan mosque for noon prayers in February 2003 when he was grabbed on the sidewalk by two men, sprayed in the face with chemicals and stuffed into a van. He hasn't been seen since.
Milan investigators, however, now appear to be close to identifying his kidnappers. Last month, officials showed up at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy and demanded records of any American planes that had flown into or out of the joint U.S.-Italian military installation around the time of the abduction. They also asked for logs of vehicles that had entered the base.
This Gulfstream jet was ordered by a firm that appeared to be a front company for the CIA, according to records.
(Special To The Washington Post)
Three official investigations have been initiated into renditions believed to have taken place in Western Europe.
A radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was kidnapped in Milan, officials say. Italian investigators are pursuing the theory that covert agents -- possibly from the United States, Italy or Egypt -- were behind the abduction.
A 41-year-old resident of Ulm, Germany, Khaled Masri, was detained during a vacation at the Macedonian border. He claims that he was flown to Kabul in January 2004, where he was held as a suspected terrorist, and that his captors spoke English with an American accent.
A parliamentary investigation has found that CIA agents wearing hoods orchestrated the seizure of two Egyptian nationals who were flown on a U.S.-registered airplane to Cairo. The men claim they were tortured in prison there.
Italian authorities suspect the Egyptian was the target of a CIA-sponsored operation known as rendition, in which terrorism suspects are forcibly taken for interrogation to countries where torture is practiced.
The Italian probe is one of three official investigations that have surfaced in the past year into renditions believed to have taken place in Western Europe. Although the CIA usually carries out the operations with the help or blessing of friendly local intelligence agencies, law enforcement authorities in Italy, Germany and Sweden are examining whether U.S. agents may have broken local laws by detaining terrorist suspects on European soil and subjecting them to abuse or maltreatment.
The CIA has kept details of rendition cases a closely guarded secret, but has defended the controversial practice as an effective and legal way to prevent terrorism. Intelligence officials have testified that they have relied on the tactic with greater frequency since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Bush administration has received backing for renditions from governments that have been criticized for their human rights records, including Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, where many of the suspects are taken for interrogation. But the administration is getting a much different reception in Europe, where lawmakers and prosecutors are questioning whether the practice is a blatant violation of local sovereignty and human rights.
There are many practical and legal hurdles to filing criminal charges against U.S. agents, including the question of whether they are protected by diplomatic immunity and the matter of determining their identity. However, prosecutors in Italy and Germany have not ruled out criminal charges. At the same time, the European investigations are producing new revelations about the suspected U.S. involvement in the disappearances of four men, not including the Egyptian, each of whom claims they were physically abused and later tortured.
In Germany, a 41-year-old man, Khaled Masri, has told authorities that he was locked up during a vacation in the Balkans and flown to Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2004, where he was held as a suspected terrorist for four months. He said that only after his captors realized he was not the al Qaeda suspect they were looking for did they take him back to the Balkans and dump him on a hillside along the Albanian border. He recalled his captors spoke English with an American accent.
German prosecutors, after several months of scrutinizing his account, have confirmed several key parts of his story and are investigating it as a kidnapping.
"So far, I've seen no sign that what he's saying is incorrect. Many, many pieces of the puzzle have checked out," said Martin Hofmann, a Munich-based prosecutor overseeing the investigation. "I have to try to find out who held him, who tortured or abused him, and who is responsible for this."
In Sweden, a parliamentary investigation has found that CIA agents wearing hoods orchestrated the forced removal in December 2001 of two Egyptian nationals on a U.S.-registered airplane to Cairo, where the men claimed they were tortured in prison.
One of the men was later exonerated as a terrorism suspect by Egyptian police, while the other remains in prison there. Details of the secret operation have shocked many in Sweden, a leading proponent of human rights.
Although Swedish authorities had secretly invited the CIA to assist in the operation, the disclosures prompted the director of Sweden's security police last week to promise that his agency would never let foreign agents take charge of such a case again.
"In the future we will use Swedish laws, Swedish measures of force and Swedish military aviation when deporting terrorists," Klas Bergenstrand, the security police chief, told reporters. "That way we get full control over the whole situation."