By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
A radical Muslim cleric who Italian prosecutors say was abducted by the CIA in Milan in 2003 and flown secretly to Cairo has been freed from an Egyptian jail and plans to sue the U.S. and Italian governments for damages, the man's attorney said Monday.
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, was ordered released Sunday by an Egyptian security court and is "recovering with his family in Alexandria," the attorney, Montasser al-Zayat, said in a telephone interview from Cairo.
An Italian official said Monday that Nasr, an Egyptian national, would be arrested on terrorism charges if he returned to Italy. When he was abducted, the official said, Italian authorities had been developing a case that he was helping recruit men to go to Iraq to join the insurgents.
Zayat said his client has retained Italian lawyers to take action there. "Abu Omar will be filing a suit against the U.S. and Italian administrations to seek damages for his kidnapping, his moral and financial losses and his excruciating personal and psychological torment," he said.
Zayat said another lawsuit would be filed against former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, alleging he "personally gave the green light to the operation." Berlusconi has denied having prior knowledge of the abduction plan.
Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who German prosecutors say was seized by the CIA in Macedonia, flown to Afghanistan and released after five months, filed suit against the agency. The case was dismissed last May on grounds it could harm national security operations. That decision is being appealed.
The disappearances of Nasr and Masri were apparent cases of a CIA tactic known as "extraordinary rendition," in which individuals the agency deems extremely dangerous are captured abroad and sent without judicial review to friendly third countries, often ones with records of human rights abuses and heavy-handed interrogation methods.
Italian prosecutors have charged 25 people they say are CIA operatives and one U.S. Air Force officer in connection with Nasr's abduction. In addition, prosecutors are pursuing charges against six Italian intelligence officials who they say cooperated in the abduction.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield on Monday declined to comment on the case, as did Luca Ferrari, spokesman for the Italian Embassy in Washington.
In sermons at his mosque in Milan, Nasr frequently denounced the United States, Zayat said. He was abducted on a street as he walked to his mosque, stuffed into a white van, blindfolded, beaten and taken to Aviano Air Base, a joint U.S.-Italian installation, his attorney said.
Zayat said Nasr was so badly roughed up that while in flight he suffered a serious cardiac episode. "He almost choked, and they ended up making an emergency landing in what I believe was an American military base in Germany," he added. "When the imam recovered, he was flown to Egypt, where he was thrown in jail."
There, according to Zayat, Nasr was systematically beaten, tortured and otherwise physically abused. He attempted suicide three times while in prison, the lawyer said.
Nasr was initially charged with membership in an illegal organization. After those charges were dropped, he was released briefly in 2004, then detained again under special emergency laws. Zayat said he was only allowed this past year to visit Nasr in prison, where the cleric was held in solitary confinement.
The Italian news agency ANSA quoted Nasr as saying by telephone Monday that "I've been reduced to a wreck of a human being. I cannot speak, I cannot leave the country. I don't want to go to prison again."
Zayat said he spoke with Nasr for several hours by telephone late Sunday and again Monday. "At first, we thought he should go overseas to relax, but now he has made up his mind to stay home with his family. After four hard years of suffering, far away from the press and from the eyes of the world, he now is recovering."
Zayat speculated that the release resulted from the abiding publicity about Nasr's case.