Italy: Documents sent to European Parliament committee on renditions allege other renditions and details of Abu Omar cover-up and the Britel rendition
Documents sent to the European Parliament's committee investigating renditions in October 2006 by the Milan prosecuting magistrate Armando Spataro and Francesca Maria Longhi, the Italian lawyer representing rendition victim Abou Elkassim Britel, a Moroccan who has Italian citizenship, provide new details of the cover-up that followed the Abu Omar kidnapping, document the Italian authorities' knowledge of the Britel rendition, and refer to the possible rendition of an Egyptian national, Mohammed Morgan, from Italy to his home country in late September 2003.
Another alleged rendition and details of Abu Omar cover-up
A document confiscated in a flat used by SISMi (Italy's military intelligence service) in Rome on 5 July 2006, that was sent by investigating magistrate Antonio Spataro to the European Parliament's committee looking into renditions, indicates that SISMi provided false information to suggest that Mustafa Hassan Osama Nasr, aka Abu Omar, had absconded, and knew since at least 15 May 2003 that he was detained and being interrogated in a secret location in Egypt. The document contains a compilation of SISMi notes concerning the Abu Omar case.
Abu Omar was kidnapped in Milan on 17 February 2003, before being taken to the U.S. airbase in Aviano (in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia), interrogated and flown to Egypt. Details of the investigations that were underway into the Al Qaida network in Italy, in which Abu Omar was suspected of being a key element in contact with Al Ansar in Iraq and the Egyptian Al Jihad network, as well as providing money and false documents to allow alleged members of terrorist groups to travel, are also included in the documentation. Claims in official SISMi documents that Abu Omar usually only carried photocopies of his documents but was carrying his authentic ones on the day of the kidnapping are dismissed as "false" by Spataro - this may have been a way to infer that the man had disappeared voluntarily by going underground. In reference to the Abu Omar case, a note by the research department dated 15 May 2003 includes an aside stating, "according to the CIA he is under arrest in Egypt, interrogated in a secret location".
A note from SISMi dated 27 July 2003, details the allegations made by Abu Omar's wife in a note that was distributed outside mosques and Islamic centres accusing the Italian police and authorities of involvement in, and responsibility for, the kidnapping (he had been under surveillance until his kidnapping). She also criticised the Muslim community and its leaders for not doing enough to help her to find out what had happened to her husband. Commentary concerning the note claims that relatives living in Cairo had found out that Abu Omar was in an Egyptian prison and that responsibility for the kidnapping was still being attributed to the Egyptian intelligence services, which had denied its involvement. A note about an article published in Albanian newspaper Gazeta Shiqiptare on 5 September 2003 states that the author cited Italian secret service sources indicating two possible scenarios: a kidnapping by the Egyptian secret services, or that Abu Omar had voluntarily gone into clandestinity. Nonetheless, it later claims that the author probably used open sources, that is, reports from the Italian press, rather than obtaining the information directly from SISMi sources.
A second alleged rendition is also referred to, that of the Egyptian national Morgan Mohammed. A "very reserved" SISMI note dated 30 October 2003 states that rumours in the Islamic community suggested that Morgan Mohammed was in detention in Egypt, and that three non-EU nationals had seen him being forced into a van in Vigevano, the town in Lombardy where he lived, around a month earlier. Reda Mohammed, an imam from Milan's Via Quaranta mosque, is reported as suggesting that the man had suffered the same fate as Abu Omar. The imam also reportedly argued that the Egyptian secret services' stategy to eliminate hostile elements could not be carried out without being tacitly allowed by Italian authorities. After noting that the "climate of fear" and "feelings of hostility" in Milan's two mosques were growing, the note claims that "from a different trusted context it has been learned that MORGAN was placed under arrest at the end of the past September in Cairo airport, on his arrival from Italy".
Doc. 3458/06 Ris. Milan, 23.10.2006; from the prosecutor's office of the Italian Republic in Milan's tribunal, 4th department - Terrorism and subversion, to the President of the European Parliament investigation commission into the transfer and illegal detention of prisoners, Mr. Carlo Coelho.
Rendition of Abou Elkassim Britel
Francesca Maria Longhi, the defence lawyer representing the Moroccan national Abou Elkassim Britel, who acquired Italian citizenship in 1999, sent documents to the EP commission investigating renditions in October to add new details to those provided in her appearance before the commission on 14 September 2006. She had told the hearing about the abduction and interrogations undergone by Britel in Pakistan, his deportation to Morocco, where he was tortured, released, re-arrested as he made his way to Spain, and eventually sentenced to 9 years in prison on the basis of statements extracted through torture and reports from Italy that he was involved in terrorist activities. In spite of two years' surveillance and a lengthy judicial investigation into his activities which included a house search and telephone interceptions, Britel was not charged in proceedings against him in Italy. Longhi notes that after the case was shelved, she was granted access to the acts of the investigation, which confirm, "with absolute clarity the information that I gave, on the basis of a deductive process, during my evidence on 14 September". She stresses that the information proves that "the judicial authority, as well as the interior ministry, were in constant cooperation with the foreign secret services and were permanentntly conscious of every movement undertaken by the person I am representing and of any illegal act carried out against him, to be precise, since the time of the first arrest he suffered in Pakistan".
The documents include:
- the prosecuting magistrate's request for judicial proceedings against Britel to be shelved (dated 28 July 2006) due to the:
"absolute lack of grounds of evidence of charge, which may be used in trial, that make it possible to claim that the people under investigation have taken part in an Islamic terrorist organisation that had as its purpose to carry out violent acts for goals of terrorism or of subversion of the democratic order"
- the order by the judge for preliminary investigations decreeing the end of the judicial proceedings (doc. 9745/06, dated 29 September 2006), because:
"the checks that have been undertaken, telephone interceptions and checks on bank accounts have not provided any support to the allegations"
It also notes that the investigation was justified by evidence of contacts with suspects found in telephone records, evidence of religious fanaticism in documents found when Britel and his Italian wife Anna Pighizzini's house (she was under investigation as well) was searched and in intercepted telephone conversations, as well as evidence that could not be used in court, namely a reserved note about his having gone to a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan, that he had suffered from malaria and a report that his name and address were found by a journalist in a Kabul apartment that was frequented by Al Qaida members. They are described as "certainly" not being sufficient "to support the charge of involvement in the Al Qaida terrorist organisation".
- a third document, dated 22 May 2003, a reserved note by the police DIGOS (special operations) unit sent to the Bergamo prosecutor's office to pass on the "reserved" information that Britel was stopped for checks at the Melilla border crossing because he "had been identified in the past as someone who attended a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan that was run by Al Qaida". The note also highlights that "in spite of an absence of elements to claim the involvement of Britel in the well-known Casablanca attacks, he is currently being interrogated".
The document is described by Longhi as "enlightening" in reference to the information that she sent to the commission on 12 July 2006 about the illegality of Britel's arrest at the Melilla border crossing, and about false information that appeared in the Italian press about his case. Noting that there is plenty more information that requires explanation, she:
"hopes that, having further and unquestionably clarified these serious circumstances, the Italian State may finally take a position to allow the immediate freeing of its citizen, [who was] found guilty by the Moroccan State on the strength of confessions that were extracted from him through torture and on the basis of hypothetical criminal acts that arose from the `interaction between the Italian secret services and the American ones, and those of some moderate Arab countries to place police forces in a condition to intervene, and some pre-emptive operation have been successful' " [emphasis in original], quoting from a statement made by Gianfranco Fini, the deputy prime minister in the Berlusconi government, that was reported in Corriere della Sera newspaper on 21 November 2001.
Doc. A 2006 11668 - Documentation sent by Francesca Longhi to the commission investigating renditions, Bergamo, 28.10.2006; Corriere della Sera, 21.11.2006.
Background: the Britel rendition
Prior to giving evidence in September, Francesca Maria Longhi sent a large compilation of documents to the EP commission providing details of the rendition and of the circumstances surrounding it.
These include a chronology of events provided by Britel's wife, based on Britel's own account of his experience when he saw her in March 2003, and her own harrowing efforts to obtain information, according to which:
Britel flew to Iran from Rome on 17 June 2001, and found it difficult to return as a result of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the militarisation of the region and subsequent war in Afghanistan. He was detained on 10 March 2002 during a document check in Lahore (Pakistan) and taken to "Garden Town" police station, where his passport was [wrongly] deemed to be a fake, resulting in his being tortured, tied up and chained. Ten days later, he was taken to the Crime Investigation Department in Lahore for five days of interrogations that involved ill-treatment, violence and denial of sleep. Handed back to the police and subsequently to the Pakistani secret service, he was again tortured in two separate instances at the start of April, during one of which he admitted to things he was pressured to admit.
On 5 May he was transferred to Islamabad to be interrogated by the FBI in a villa on four occasions. The Americans promised him money for information concerning Osma bin Laden and allowed him to see the Moroccan ambassador, whereas he was denied access to Italian diplomatic officials, which he repeatedly requested, ever since his arrest.
On 24 May, he was blindfolded, handcuffed and loaded onto a US private aeroplane travelling to Rabat (Morocco). From there, he was taken to the unofficial detention centre in Tèmara, where the DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire) holds several prisoners in illegal conditions, without access to lawyers, without informing their families, and in which abuses such as the routine use of torture and isolation have been reported by human rights organisations.
On 11 February 2003, he was taken to Kenitra to his family and released after further questioning and inquiries into his activities did not result in any charges being brought against him. Nonetheless, his travel documents were not returned to him. On 26 February, Anna Pighizzini travelled to Morocco to finally see her husband, and found him in poor health conditions. A DST officer controlled him through telephone calls and frequent meetings, urging him to collaborate with them on his return to Italy, and to make his way back to Italy illegally, using false documentation. After her return to Italy in mid-March (he stayed on longer in Morocco), by telephone, Britel explained that he was being pressured to obtain false documents, but didn't want to do anything illegal. On 4 April, Britel told her that the Italian embassy agreed to issue a travel document for him to return to Italy. His wife returned to Morocco, and he explained that it was unlikely that he would be allowed to leave for Italy by aeroplane, as he didn't have a visa. The Italian embassy explained that it was impossible to accompany him to the airport, and he contemplated leaving through the Moroccan-Spanish border point in Nador/Melilla. He received the travel document on 12 May, and in the afternoon, he boarded a bus to Nador. On 15 May, he called to say that the Spanish and Moroccan police wouldn't let him through, and later claimed that he found someone who would help him across the border.
It was their last contact, and on the next day the terrorist attacks in Casablanca took place. On 17 May, the Spanish television reported that an Italian Moroccan was arrested at the Melilla border crossing. On 19 May, a Moroccan newspaper reported his name and date of birth, alleging that he was arrested prior to the attacks as someone who may have been in contact with Al Qaida. Britel's wife went to the Italian consulate in Rabat, which had not received any information, and hired a lawyer who also informed her that it was impossible to obtain any further information, for the time being. She then went to the Moroccan justice ministry to enquire about her husband's whereabouts, and was told on 29 May that "Your husband is not under arrest", a claim to which she reacted by claiming that he was illegally detained without anyone knowing about it. She was encouraged to file a complaint, which she did, and was told that it would be investigated. After her return to Italy on 6 June 2006, she addressed a letter to the Moroccan justice ministry and then to several other Moroccan ministries. Her lawyer, Ms. Longhi addressed a letter requesting information to the Moroccan general prosecutor.
Further correspondence between Longhi and the Italian courts, in which the lawyer calls for judicial inquiries into his client's activities to cease (1 April 2004), highlights that:
- From 25 May 2002 to 11 February 2003, and again from 16 May 2003 to 10 September 2003, Britel was illegally held in Tèmara, a centre which has received criticism as a site where interrogations, secret detention and torture are practiced from NGOs including Amnesty International and the Fedération Internationale des Droits Humains (FIDH).
- On 3 October 2003, a 15-year prison sentence was passed against Britel in Rabat for terrorist offences, before being reduced to nine years on appeal on 7 January 2004.
- That the trial was summary, and contravened the procedural and substantive norms in Moroccan law in a number of ways, including the denial of texts that supported the defendant's case and the use of confessions obtained through torture and ill-treatment.
- That the fact that Britel was under investigation in Italy, and newspaper reports about his case, had been important elements in the charges brought against him in Morocco, even though the investigations failed to lead to any charges against him, and newspaper reports were sometimes inaccurate.
- the collection of documents that were sent to the EP Commission include:
See: Full list of documents: de longhi-britel (37 documents and 2 Notes)
- the judicial authorisation of investigations into Britel's activities (doc 1), and to extend them (2);
- the repeated requests by defence lawyers that the case be shelved (3-5);
- the letters that they sent to the newspapers Il Corriere della Sera and Eco di Bergamo (which also revealed details about Britel's wife, including her address) to complain about defamatory treatment (references to Britel as a mujahideen, and a 'sleeper', alleged involvement in the Casablanca bombings) and inaccurate reports published concerning Britel (6-7) and the lawsuits that were filed against the newspapers (8-10);
- reports by AI (11 and 20), FIDH (18-19, 21) and Human Rights Watch (22) about torture and illegal detentions in Tèmara;
- the travel document Britel was issued by the Italian embassy in Rabat, and related documents (12-14);
- correspondence between Anna Pighizzini and Ms. Longhi (15);
- correspondence between Anna Pighizzini and Ms. Longhi and Moroccan and Italian authorities (17, 23-25, 31-32, 34-35);
- the text of sentences passed against him in Morocco (in Italian and Arabic, 26-29);
- a statement by his wife, dated 12 February 2005, in which she asks for help from human rights organisations (33);
- two articles from the Moroccan press about a prison hunger strike in which Britel was involved (36-37);
- and two notes about translation work that Britel sought to carry out in Italy (notes 1 and 2).
[compilation of docs to be linked in here]
Two important issues arising from the documentation (apart from the rendition per se) include the effect of press reports published, and judicial initiatives undertaken, in Italy, on the treatment and court proceedings against people in their country of origin (for details of another case in which this is a matter of concern, see, Portugal: Renditions continue: Algerian prisoner abducted and deported, Statewatch news online, October 2006). Another is the fact that the intervention by the Italian embassy in Rabat was unable to have much effect beyond an improvement of Britel's conditions in prison and provision of information about his case, because Moroccan authorities consider his Moroccan nationality to be prevalent over his Italian one. However, the most important circumstance that can be ascertained from a look at these documents is the sense of impotence and the suffering inflicted on rendition victims and their close relatives.
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