CIA Torture Flights: European Complicity in Renditions?

The question gripping Italy at the moment is whether the United States informed Rome of its plan to kidnap an Egyptian cleric on Italian soil. Meanwhile, there are further reports that the CIA put pressure on Germany to help quell European criticism of human rights abuses by its "key allies" in the war on terror.

Europe's leaders may have known more than they let on about the "extraordinary renditions" program
AP

Europe's leaders may have known more than they let on about the "extraordinary renditions" program

The extent to which some European states turned a blind eye to the more sinister aspects of the United States' war on terror is becoming ever more apparent. For some European Union countries, the rule of law seems to have been an inconvenient obstacle when it came to cooperating with CIA agents both in Europe and in countries with less than exemplary human rights records.

The latest capital to feel the heat is Rome. On Wednesday the head of the Italian parliament's secret services committee said the question of whether the government had been aware of plans to snatch an Egyptian cleric in Milan was a state secret. However, prosecutors don't just believe Rome knew of the plans, they allege that Italian secret service agents actively aided the CIA. After wrapping up their investigation earlier this month, Milan prosecutors are expected to indict the country's top spy, Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy's military intelligence agency SISMI, on charges connected to the kidnapping.

The Egyptian cleric, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was allegedly snatched by CIA agents in Milan in February 2003, as part of the "extraordinary renditions" program. According to Omar, he was flown via Germany to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. Now Milan prosecutors are seeking the arrest of 26 Americans, all but one believed to be CIA operatives, in connection with the case. The prosecutors also claim that the operation was carried out with the assistance of Italian secret service agents.

Italian cabinet undersecretary Enrico Micheli told the parliamentary secret services committee that the question of whether the Italian government knew anything about the kidnapping was classified information. According to committee president Claudio Scajola, who briefed reporters after the closed-door session, Micheli had said that there was evidence showing that the Italian state agencies were responsible for what happened that day.

However, Milan prosecutors recently announced the conclusion of their investigation into a total of 39 defendants -- including the 26 Americans, whose extradition they are seeking, and several Italian intelligence officials, the highest-ranking of whom is Pollari. The prosecution case centers on the fact that abetting kidnapping is a crime in Italy. They allege that Italian agents broke the law by helping the Americans track down Abu Omar in Milan.

The prospect of indictments and a possible trial has raised the specter of revelations about possible collusion between the government of then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Washington in the alleged extraordinary renditions program. Berlusconi has until now maintained that Rome knew nothing of the operation, never mind took part in it. However, the New York Times quotes former senior intelligent analyst Michael Scheuer as saying the idea that the CIA or the White House would have agreed to the operation "unless they were absolutely sure the Italian government was behind it is laughable." He added, "It's not even in the realm of possibility."

It seems Abu Omar himself is seeking revenge. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, his Egyptian lawyer has announced that the cleric, who is still sitting in a Cairo jail, is considering suing Berlusconi for €10 million in damages.

Other media reports this week reveal a picture of a far from squeaky-clean European record in the extraordinary renditions saga.

According to a report in Guardian, the CIA tried to persuade Germany to help quell European criticism of the human rights record of its allies in the clandestine renditions program. In return the Americans are reported to have offered the Germans access to one of its own citizens who had been arrested in Morocco. While the report doesn’t mention the identity of the detained suspect, it is in all likelihood the Syrian-born German citizen Mohammed Zammar.

As SPIEGEL reported last year, Zammar, who is accused of involvement in the 9/11 plot, was transferred from Morocco on a rendition flight to a prison in Syria, where he remains. Damascus is alleged to have offered German agents access to the prisoner on condition that charges were dropped against Syrian intelligence agents accused of threatening Syrian dissidents in Germany. The charges were dropped but Berlin denied any link.

According to the Guardian, the CIA also demanded that Berlin should "avert pressure from the EU" over human rights abuses in Morocco, which it describes as a "valuable partner in the fight against terrorism."

smd/spiegel/ap/guardian

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