By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 10, 2006
MILAN, Nov. 9 -- In an account smuggled out of prison, a radical Muslim cleric has detailed how he was kidnapped by the CIA from this northern Italian city and flown to Cairo, where he was tortured for months with electric shocks and shackled to an iron rack known as "the Bride."
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, wrote an 11-page letter describing his 2003 abduction at the hands of the CIA and Italian secret service agents. He somehow transferred the document out of Egypt -- where he remains in custody -- and into the hands of Italian prosecutors who are investigating his disappearance.
The Milan public prosecutor's office on Thursday confirmed the authenticity of the letter, the existence of which was first reported by the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The document has been submitted as evidence to defense attorneys representing 25 CIA officers, a U.S. Air Force officer and nine Italian agents who have been charged with organizing the kidnapping of Nasr, an Egyptian national, in February 2003.
A copy of the document, handwritten in Arabic, was obtained by The Washington Post. Undated, it reads like a homemade legal affidavit, outlining how Nasr was seized as he was walking to a mosque in Milan, stuffed into a van and rushed to Egypt in a covert operation involving spies from three countries.
"I didn't understand anything about what was going on," Nasr wrote. "They began to punch me in the stomach and all over my body. They wrapped my entire head and face with wide tape, and cut holes over my nose and face so I could breathe."
Upon his arrival in Egypt hours later, he said, he was taken into a room by an Egyptian security official who told him that "two pashas" wanted to speak with him.
"Only one spoke, an Egyptian," he recalled. "And all he said was, 'Do you want to collaborate with us?' " Nasr said the other "pasha" appeared to be an American. His captors offered a deal: They would allow him to return to Italy if he agreed to become an informant. Nasr said he refused. As a result, he said, he was interrogated and physically abused for the next 14 months in two Cairo prisons.
Italian prosecutors charge that the CIA and the Italian military intelligence agency known as Sismi collaborated to kidnap Nasr, who was known for preaching radical sermons in Milan and railing against U.S. policies in Afghanistan and the Middle East. According to prosecutors, the abduction thwarted a separate Italian police investigation into Nasr's activities and jeopardized a surveillance operation concerning other radicals in Milan.
Court papers allege that the kidnapping was orchestrated by the CIA's station chief in Rome and involved at least two dozen CIA operatives, most of whom arrived in Italy months before to lay the groundwork. Italian judges have issued arrest warrants for the CIA officers and have pledged to try them in absentia if necessary.
Although the case has caused a furor in Italy, the U.S. government has neither confirmed nor denied playing a role in Nasr's disappearance. Egyptian officials have also remained silent. A CIA spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Nasr's wife and his lawyer in Cairo have said the cleric is still imprisoned in Egypt, although he has been released under house arrest for brief periods. It is unclear how Italian prosecutors received a copy of his letter. Investigators said handwriting experts have verified that Nasr was the author.
Prosecutors in Milan are also investigating allegations that Italian spies offered to give Nasr $2.5 million if he would sign papers saying he had left Italy voluntarily and was not kidnapped, according to Italian news reports.
The imam of a Milan mosque where Nasr preached on occasion said he also recognized the handwriting as the Egyptian's. "This is his writing, I know it for sure," said the imam, Arman Ahmed al-Hissini, who is known locally as Abu Imad and runs the Viale Jenner mosque, a few blocks from where Nasr was kidnapped.
Abdel Hamid Shaari, president of the Islamic Cultural Center in Milan, said he was worried that the public disclosure of Nasr's letter could jeopardize his life, or at least dash any chances that he might be released. "What are they going to do with him now?" Shaari said. "He's a problem for the Italians, the Egyptians and the Americans."
In his letter, Nasr described how his health had badly deteriorated. He had lost hearing in one ear from repeated beatings, he said, and his formerly pitch-black hair had turned all white. He said he was kept in a cell with no toilet and no lights, where "roaches and rats walked across my body."
He also gave a graphic account of Egyptian interrogation practices, including how he would be strapped to an iron rack nicknamed "the Bride" and zapped with electric stun guns.
On other occasions, he wrote, he was tied to a wet mattress on the floor. While one interrogator sat on a wooden chair perched on the prisoner's shoulders, another interrogator would flip a switch, sending jolts of electricity into the mattress coils.