The Rendition of Abu Omar

John Foot

On 17 February 2003, a 39-year-old Egyptian man was walking down a quiet street in suburban Milan on his way to daily prayers. His real name was Osama Nasr, but he was known as Abu Omar. He was a cleric and political militant, an opponent of the Mubarak regime, and had refugee status in Italy (which is very hard to get). A man in police uniform came up to him and asked in Italian to see his documents. As he reached for his passport, Omar was bundled into a white van and driven away at high speed. He was threatened, blindfolded, bound hand and foot, punched, forced onto the floor of the van, and taken to the US air base at Aviano near Brescia – about five hours’ drive away. The next day, he was put on a plane to Ramstein in Germany, where he boarded another plane, this time for Egypt. Journalists and Milanese magistrates investigating the case later discovered that Omar had been transferred to Cairo on a Gulfstream jet used for CIA operations.[*]

Omar was taken to the Torah prison compound in Cairo, where he was tortured. He was stripped and placed in a room ‘so cold it felt that my bones would snap’, then moved to a boiling hot cell. Electric shocks were applied to his whole body – afterwards he found it difficult to walk. This went on for more than a year. In April 2004 he was released, with the proviso that he keep quiet about what had happened to him. Omar, however, phoned his wife and friends in Milan. They had had no idea whether or not he was still alive. Omar was worried and cagey, but confirmed that he had been kidnapped. This was too much for the Egyptians, who were probably tapping his phone. They immediately arrested him and sent him back to prison in Cairo. In November last year, an 11-page document written by Omar somehow reached magistrates in Milan and journalists on the Corriere della Sera. ‘I am writing this … from the inside of my tomb. I have lost weight … my condition is critical … my face has changed thanks to the tortures I have received … cockroaches and rats walk over my body … my hair and my beard have become white … I have lost my hearing in one ear.’ On 11 February this year Omar was finally released, but remains in Egypt.

Thanks to the policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’ hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have been treated like Omar, taken across national borders to various kinds of prison, secret and otherwise, with the full knowledge of the Bush administration. The Omar case is different in two important respects. First, he had refugee status in Italy, on the grounds that he would be ill-treated if he returned to Egypt. And second, a great deal is now known about this rendition.

On 20 February 2003, Abu Omar’s wife, Nabila Ghali, told the police that her husband had disappeared. Suspicious of the police, and scared, she had waited three days before going to the authorities. Word had already spread through Milan’s immigrant community that Omar had been kidnapped and that the Americans were responsible. An Egyptian woman had seen him being seized as she walked down the street. Under pressure from her community, she gave a statement to the police. Later, her account was confirmed by Omar and other participants in the affair (she herself was so frightened that she disappeared back to Egypt soon afterwards).

Berlusconi and his ministers claimed that they hadn’t known about the operation. ‘Our secret services did not know,’ Carlo Giovanardi, a government minister under Berlusconi, told parliament. But it isn’t clear that this is true. Certainly, Berlusconi’s government, the US and the Italian secret services soon began the depistaggi, or ‘laying of false trails’. The first was of US making: a dispatch sent to the Italian police in March 2003 which claimed that Omar ‘may have travelled’ to ‘an unknown country in the Balkans’. This (vague) false trail may have encouraged the police not to take too much trouble over the investigation. The case went cold, in part because the judge then in charge of it, Stefano Dambruoso, requested mobile phone records from the wrong day. Other ‘reports’ muddied the waters still further: one claimed a sighting of Omar in a Milan mosque on the afternoon of his kidnap, when he was already at Aviano. Another tactic was to imply that he was a spy and had staged his own kidnap. This is what Nicolò Pollari, head of the military wing of the Italian secret services, the SISMI, said when he gave evidence to a parliamentary commission. As with all effective false trails, there were elements of truth in these depistaggi. The Egyptian authorities had tried to turn Omar on his arrival in Cairo, and there are doubts about what he was doing in various countries including Afghanistan and Albania before he arrived in Italy in the late 1990s.

Not much happened until Omar made his calls in April 2004. Once they had a definite time and date for the kidnapping, however, the prosecutors in charge of the case – now including an extremely stubborn magistrate called Armando Spataro – set to work. By comparing calls made near the site of the kidnapping at the time indicated by Omar with those made in Aviano five hours later, the investigators were able to narrow down the field to 17 phones, all of which had made brief calls to each other between 12.15 p.m. and 12.42 p.m. on the day in question, and all of which had sim cards that had stopped working a few days later. None of the owners of these phones could be traced. There had also been calls from these phones near the site of the kidnapping in the weeks before it took place (there were signs that the area had been staked out). This complicated phone trail eventually led to a man called Robert Lady. Lady was the CIA’s man in Milan, formally a US vice-consul, but well known to the police as a spy. He was so in love with Italy that he had decided to spend his imminent retirement in a luxurious villa near Turin. When this house was raided by the Italian authorities in June 2005 they found compelling evidence of Lady’s involvement. On his computer were previously unseen photos of Abu Omar taken two months before his kidnapping in the street from which he was seized. An email warning Lady to get out of Italy was found in the waste bin. There was also evidence that he had booked a flight from Zurich to Cairo a few days after the rendition. They found something else on his computer that made them worry they were being taken for a ride: a map showing the quickest route from the street where Omar was snatched to the US base in Aviano. By the time the police knocked on Lady’s door, he had followed the advice in the email and vanished.

The CIA agents had not bothered to cover their tracks. As well as mobile phone records, documents turned up everywhere – enormous bills from lavish stays in five-star hotels, identity cards and passports, motorway passes. Many of the agents had at least used false names, but some didn’t bother. Traffic police had even filmed the kidnappers’ hired cars just before they lifted Omar. Twenty-six arrest warrants for US citizens were issued by magistrates between June and September 2005. Requesting extradition, the magistrates described the rendition as ‘a serious crime against personal freedom and a breach of Italian state sovereignty, which also damaged the struggle against terrorism’. But Roberto Castelli, the justice minister in Berlusconi’s government, refused to initiate extradition proceedings, claiming that national security was at stake. Castelli didn’t announce his decision until April 2006, just after his party had lost the general election. The victorious centre-left Prodi government has also refused to ask for the CIA agents to be extradited.

The Italian depistaggi had been put together by a team generously financed by the state. In early July last year, the police raided 11 rooms on the sixth floor of a building on the Via Nazionale in central Rome, opposite the main police station, and took numerous files and eight computers away. A series of ‘dodgy’ dossiers had been produced here, aimed at covering up illegal actions committed by the secret services or influencing political power-games. The ‘office’ was run by the wonderfully named Pio Pompa (Pio as in Pius, Pompa as in ‘pump’ or – more colloquially – ‘blow-job’), a mysterious figure even in this shady world.

Documents found in the office recorded payments to a journalist who had been employed as a propagandist. Renato Farina was a fervent Catholic and deputy director of Libero, one of the few right-wing daily newspapers in Italy not owned by the Berlusconi family. Recruited by Pompa, Farina had started to plant bogus stories about the Abu Omar case. In June 2006, he published an extraordinary scoop. Romano Prodi – the piece claimed – had authorised rendition flights when he was president of the European Commission. It was a great story, and a total invention. Farina had copied – word for word – the story Pompa had given to him. The original was found in the office on the Via Nazionale.

The secret services had also asked Farina to find out how the magistrates were getting on with the Omar case and told him to try to lay yet another false trail. Farina set up a meeting with two of the investigating magistrates. On 22 May 2006, he went to Spataro’s office, deep inside the Milan law courts. But Spataro was fully aware of the journalist’s double role, having been tipped off by the police, who had their suspicions even before the raid on Pompa’s office. Farina was strung along and humiliated; Spataro even suggested that he participate in a conference on journalism and ethics. Farina handed his interview notes straight to Pompa, who gave him some tickets for the World Cup in return.

After the raid on Pompa’s office Farina confessed, but claimed that he had been ‘defending the interests of the West’ and ‘fighting the fourth world war’ – ‘against Islam’. His police interrogation filled two hundred pages. He received numerous messages of support from other journalists and politicians, some of whom saw him as a victim of the ‘left-wing judiciary’. Berlusconi agreed, calling him a ‘guerrilla fighter for liberty’ and praising his ‘useful sacrifice’. The Italian journalists’ guild banned him for a year, ‘for having betrayed the journalistic profession’ – calls for him to be expelled for life (which in Italy means five years) weren’t heeded. In December, the same magistrates he had pretended to interview charged him – along with his paymaster, Pio Pompa – with favoreggiamento (as an accessory, not to the kidnap, but the cover-up). Farina admitted his part in the conspiracy and was given a six-month suspended sentence (which was converted into a €6840 fine). He continues to write for a daily newspaper.

Other journalists got less support from Berlusconi. Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d’Avanzo of La Repubblica, who broke some of the Abu Omar story, were trailed by agents and had their phones tapped. In August 2006, the police turned up at the paper’s offices in Rome, on the orders of a judge in Brescia who was investigating leaks of judicial information to the press, and took away Bonini’s computer, although he was not under investigation for any crime. It was more than a month before magistrates ordered that the computer be handed back, along with all the copies of files the police had made.

Late last year, it briefly seemed that the Prodi government might support the Milanese magistrates’ efforts. Nicolò Pollari was sacked as head of the SISMI, and the tappers had their own phones tapped. Pollari and Pompa were overheard plotting against some of the magistrates involved in the case, and trying to move the inquiry away from Milan (where it could not be controlled) to Brescia (where it could). Soon afterwards, Pollari and four other secret service agents were charged with aiding and abetting Omar’s kidnapping.

By this time there had been another breakthrough in the case. Using phone-tap records, the magistrates identified a carabiniere called Luciano Pironi, a member of a special anti-terrorist squad, who confessed that he had played a key role in the rendition while claiming that he didn’t know much about it: he had merely been asked to stop Omar in the street and ask for his documents. After taking Omar’s passport, he said, he had stood open-mouthed as the Egyptian was bundled into a white van and driven off. Another car then drew up and Pironi threw the documents into it. His phone then rang – this was the call that would later identify him. The operation, Pironi said, had been organised with the full co-operation of the secret services. Pironi, like Farina, plea-bargained and received a suspended sentence.

In February a judge in Milan decided that 33 defendants (including Pollari and his colleagues, Bob Lady and 25 other CIA agents) should go on trial in connection with Abu Omar’s kidnapping. In early February, Omar himself was released from jail in Cairo, and reunited with his wife and family. He released a series of statements about his time in prison (with horrific details of torture) and claimed that he wanted to return to Italy for the trial, set for early June, and announced his intention to sue Berlusconi for damages. ‘I am reduced to a human wreck,’ he said. But Egypt would not let either Omar or his wife leave for Italy. (His wife was stopped at the airport when she attempted to return for the opening of the trial.) In any case, Omar risked arrest if he did return to Milan, since he was being investigated by the Italian authorities, on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist cell. In May the US again refused to participate in the legal process, making clear that if it received an extradition order for the 26 CIA agents, it would not comply.

In the run-up to the trial, the weak and divided centre-left government did everything in its power to block the legal process. Prodi’s administration decided that the magistrates in Milan had broken state secrecy laws during their investigation, and took the case to the constitutional court. The magistrates were furious, and argued that in such a serious case these laws did not apply. All this had the desired effect and the case was no sooner opened than adjourned, once for ten days and then again – thanks to Italy’s absurdly long judicial summer break – until the end of October at the very earliest. This is a well-worn tactic: if enough obstacles are put in the way of the magistrates (and the poor journalists trying to follow the case) the public will lose interest, and the case will be emptied of all significance. The trial may never take place – we await the judgment from the constitutional court. In the meantime, Italy’s political system is in deep crisis. The work of Milan’s magistrates may not end in any convictions, but it has exposed one of the most bizarre and shameful acts committed in the name of the ‘war on terror’.

[*] Abu Omar’s case is reported in Stephen Grey’s Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Rendition Programme, reviewed by Chalmers Johnson in the LRB of 8 February.