May 14, 2008, Milan, Italy – Clutching her Italian identity card in a gloved hand, the cloaked wife of a fiery Muslim cleric Wednesday tearfully recounted publicly for the first time how her husband was kidnapped on a Milan street in 2003 and sent to Egypt to endure torture and repeated imprisonment.
Italian prosecutors say the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, was kidnapped by CIA agents as part of a plan to transport suspected terrorists to third countries for questioning.
Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was a political refugee in Italy and preached at the Islamic Center on Milan’s Jenner Street.
His wife, Ghali Nabila, spent more than six hours on the stand, marking the first testimony in a complicated court case that opened nearly a year ago, and has focused on the U.S. practice of “extraordinary renditions” and complicity by foreign governments in such forced relocation.
In her testimony, translated into Italian, Nabila, 40, described her shock at seeing Abu Omar in Alexandria, Egypt, during one brief respite from Egyptian prison in October 2004.
“I found him wasted, skinny – so skinny his hair had turned white, he had a hearing aid,” she said, wearing a head-to-toe covering with only a small slit for the eyes.
Nabila at first rebuffed prosecutors’ requests to describe the torture her husband had recounted, saying she didn’t want to talk about it. Advised by prosecutors that she had no choice, she tearfully proceeded: “He was tied up like he was being crucified. He was beaten up, especially around his ears. He was subject to electroshocks to many body parts.”
“To his genitals?” the prosecutors asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
Officially, the trial has been delayed by a constitutional challenge concerning whether evidence in the case involves state secrets that were possibly gathered illegally and whether revelations would be damaging to national security. Equally important, the case could prove embarrassing to Italian politicians and security officials, who at the very least allowed the rendition on their watch.
Judge Oscar Magi, presiding over the trial in a cramped, airless courtroom in Milan, indicated Wednesday that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and well as his predecessor, Romano Prodi, would have to testify. Berlusconi assumed the post of prime minister last week, but his previous government was in charge when Abu Omar was kidnapped.
Italy has indicted 26 Americans – 25 CIA agents and an air force colonel – in Abu Omar’s disappearance, citing a trail of incriminating cellphone exchanges intercepted by Italian prosecutors’ in the days before the cleric’s disappearance. The U.S. government has already said it will not extradite the suspects.
Far more vulnerable, though, are more than a half-dozen senior officers of the Italian secret service who have also been indicted, all accused of in some way approving, masterminding or carrying out the kidnapping plan.
The Italian government has tried to block the prosecution or at least to limit embarrassing revelations by arguing that some of the evidence is classified or privileged information. For example, it has said overzealous prosecutors should not have intercepted phone calls of CIA agents. The Constitutional Court is set to rule on this issue July 8, though it has failed to meet previous deadlines.
But the Milanese prosecutor, Armando Spataro, has vowed to press on, noting that, even if some documents are inadmissible, there are many levels of proof.
“We have the maximum respect for the Constitutional Court, but we don’t think any decision it makes will stop this trial from going forward,” he said Wednesday.
One of the documents in question has been introduced by the defense lawyers of Nicolò Pollari, former head of Sismi, the Italian military intelligence agency, in an attempt to clear his name. It would presumably show that he was either unaware of the kidnapping plan or opposed it.
Many members of Italian law enforcement agencies were furious about the kidnapping. They say they could have arrested Abu Omar at any time, and had him under surveillance for potential connections with terrorist organizations. They say that his clumsy and illegal kidnapping erased years of police work that was on the verge of gaining them valuable information into the working of Muslim groups in Italy.