Italy Seeks Arrests of 13 in Alleged Rendition

By Craig Whitlock and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 25, 2005

MILAN, June 24 -- Italian authorities said Friday they have issued arrest warrants against 13 American intelligence operatives, charging that they kidnapped a radical Islamic cleric as he walked to a mosque here two years ago, held him hostage at two U.S. military bases and then covertly flew him to Cairo. He later said he was tortured by Egyptian security police.

The case marks the first known instance of a foreign government filing criminal charges against U.S. operatives for their alleged role in an overseas counterterrorism mission. Coming from a longtime ally, Italy, which has worked closely with the U.S. government to fight terrorism and has sent troops to Iraq, the charges reflect growing unease in Europe about some U.S. tactics against suspected Islamic terrorists.

There was no sign that any of the Americans was currently in Italy; the identities that many of them used in Italy appear to be cover names. An Italian official said the government would ask the United States for "judicial assistance" but did not specify whether it would seek extradition of the 13.

The warrants, approved by an Italian judge Thursday, followed a two-year investigation by prosecutors and police in Milan into the Feb. 17, 2003, disappearance of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. A veteran of military training camps in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Nasr was a longtime surveillance target of Italian counterterrorism police, who have made no secret of their frustration over how he was forcibly taken out of the country without their knowledge.

Italian prosecutors have concluded that Nasr was the target of a top-secret operation that the CIA calls an "extraordinary rendition." It is the forcible and highly secretive transfer of terrorism suspects to their home countries or other nations where they can be interrogated without the same legal protections available to them in the United States or the places from which they were removed.

Michael Scheuer, a former senior counterterrorism official at the CIA, said details provided by the Italians suggest that the Nasr case was not a CIA operation. He also said the agency would never approve a kidnapping in Italy.

According to Italian court documents, investigators in Milan determined that Nasr was kidnapped just after noon by eight U.S. operatives as he was walking from his house to a nearby mosque to pray. He was bundled into a van and taken to Aviano Air Base, a joint Italian-U.S. military installation. Hours later, he was put on a Learjet to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he was transferred to another airplane, which took him to Cairo, the documents show.

The documents also show that the Americans spent more than $100,000 to stay in luxury hotels in Milan, Florence and Venice before and after Nasr's disappearance.

Italian investigators believe that Nasr was released from jail in Egypt, at least temporarily. A year after his disappearance, he called home to his wife and colleagues in Milan and said he had been kidnapped by Americans and tortured with electric shocks by Egyptian security police, according to wiretap transcripts of the calls, the documents said.

The CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Rome declined to comment Friday. State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli told reporters, "I don't have any facts or comments for you about those reports." The State Department also said any extradition requests from Italy would be handled by the Justice Department.

According to Italian court documents, police and prosecutors in Milan identified 19 Americans, four of them women, whom they suspected of playing a role in the kidnapping, although only 13 were charged with a crime. Investigators relied on cell phone records, hotel registries, car rental receipts, electronic highway toll passes and other documents to determine the identities of the Americans, according to the documents.

Milan prosecutors state in the documents that although they could independently confirm that only one of those named in the warrants was a CIA operative, the overall findings "allow us to attribute the kidnapping with certainty to the CIA."

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