Italy must compensate a radical cleric who was abducted in Milan by the CIA 13 years ago and flown to Egypt where he was brutally tortured, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously ruled this week.
The Strasbourg, France–based court ordered Italy to pay the cleric, Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr — better known as Abu Omar — $78,000, and his wife $16,500 for her suffering. Italy must also pay them $33,000 in "costs and expenses." The court's decision said Italian authorities "were aware that Abu Omar was a victim of the extraordinary rendition operation" and that an investigation and trial into his abduction "had not led to the punishment of those responsible, who had therefore ultimately been granted impunity."
Moreover, the human rights court condemned former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's decision to invoke state secrets during an Italian prosecutor's probe into Abu Omar's disappearance "in order to ensure that those responsible did not have to answer for their actions."
The long-awaited decision in the years-long case brings to a close a chapter in one of the CIA's most infamous "extraordinary rendition" episodes, a highly controversial post-9/11 counterterrorism program in which suspected terrorists were secretly captured in one country and sent to another to be harshly interrogated.
In a landmark 2009 ruling, Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro won in absentia convictions against 26 Americans, 25 of who were employed or under contract to the CIA, on kidnapping and other charges in connection with Abu Omar's February 2003 abduction. It stands as the first and only prosecution and conviction involving Americans connected to the CIA's rendition, detention, and interrogation program. The convictions of officers working for Italy's then–military intelligence agency, SISMI, who were also found to be culpable was overturned on state secrecy grounds.
Sabrina De Sousa, one of the CIA officers convicted and sentenced to a seven-year prison term, has spent the past decade trying to clear her name over her role in the rendition and expose details about the case that have remained shrouded in secrecy. The use of state secrets — in the US and in Italy — have hindered her efforts to clear her name, De Sousa said. (The US government has never acknowledged that the rendition of Abu Omar took place.)
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De Sousa was detained at Lisbon Portela Airport in Portugal last October on an outstanding European arrest warrant issued by Italian authorities after she was convicted — days after VICE News interviewed her about her ordeal. She was forced to surrender her Portuguese and US passports (De Sousa is a dual US-Portuguese citizen) while a judge considered whether she should be extradited to Italy. Last month, an appeals court in Lisbon decided that De Sousa should be sent to Italy to be formally sentenced. She's appealing the decision.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella granted another CIA officer who was convicted, Betnie Medero, a full pardon last December. The former CIA station chief in Milan, Robert Lady, received a partial pardon, from a nine-year sentence to a seven-year one.
Abu Omar, who was rumored to have been one of the CIA's top informants years before 9/11, was a member of the radical Egyptian group Gama'a al-Islamiyya, designated as a terrorist organization by Egypt and the US in 1997, when the group allegedly carried out the infamous massacre of 62 people at Luxor. Omar left Egypt in the 1990s and moved to Albania, where he was suspected of plotting an attack on a visiting Egyptian minister (the attack never took place), and subsequently expelled. He resettled briefly in Germany and then moved to Milan, where he was granted political asylum in early 2001.
The CIA, with the help of SISMI and an informant who worked for Italian police, targeted Abu Omar over his fiery, anti-American sermons and suspicions that he had been recruiting jihadists to fight Americans in Iraq. On February 17, 2003, as the 39-year-old cleric was walking to his mosque, a white van pulled up and Omar was shoved inside. He was taken to Aviano Air Base, located 50 miles north of Venice and home to the US Air Force's 31st Fighter Wing. Then he was flown to Rammstein Air Base in Germany and ultimately to Cairo, where the CIA turned him over to Egyptian intelligence officials for interrogation. The ECHR ruling said Abu Omar was "subjected to interrogation sessions [in Egypt] during which he was ill-treated and tortured."
Abu Omar was eventually freed and granted asylum in Egypt.
While Abu Omar's application to ECHR was pending, Italy convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to six years in prison on terrorism charges. Spataro told VICE News in an interview last October from his office in Turin, Italy that the CIA's abduction of Abu Omar derailed active investigations into other alleged jihadists operating in Milan, including the Italian police's own probe of Abu Omar. If the CIA did not render the cleric to Egypt, Spataro said, the cleric would have been prosecuted and convicted, and would be in prison today.
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