Terror suspect was beaten while in custody, lawyer says

Knight Ridder NewspapersMay 9, 2006 

— CAIRO, Egypt—A militant Egyptian cleric who allegedly was abducted from an Italian street by CIA officers and turned over to Egypt in 2003 has met with his lawyer for the first time and said he was beaten repeatedly in the early stages of his imprisonment, including while he was in U.S. custody.

Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, who's also known as Abu Omar, met with his attorney three times between mid-March and late April at Tura prison just south of Cairo, his lawyer, Montasser Zayat, told Knight Ridder on Tuesday.

The meetings were the first allowed by Egyptian authorities since Nasr, who's being held without charge in solitary confinement, was seized three years ago.

Nasr aroused Italian authorities' suspicion by handing out anti-American pamphlets and preaching jihad, or holy war, at a mosque in Milan. Italian police had placed him under surveillance and had tapped his phone when he disappeared on Feb. 17, 2003.

The kidnapping strained relations between the United States and Italy, where authorities have charged 22 Americans with the abduction—including the former head of the CIA base in Milan. Italian authorities have denied that they knew of the abduction beforehand, but former CIA officers have voiced skepticism, noting that the Americans appeared to have made no efforts to disguise their identities and used their real names, passports and personal cell phones while allegedly conducting the operation.

The incident appears to have made Nasr one of the few public faces of the Bush administration's controversial practice of "extraordinary rendition," in which American agents snatch terror suspects abroad and ship them to other countries for interrogation. Human rights advocates charge that the suspects are often sent to countries that practice torture.

Egypt, a close U.S. ally with a long record of human rights violations, has been one of the top destinations for such cases, human rights organizations say.

Nasr's access to his attorney may indicate renewed Italian interest in pursuing charges against the 22 Americans. In the past few weeks, Egyptian authorities began questioning Nasr about his abduction at an Italian judge's request, said Zayat and Nasr's relatives, who were interviewed separately.

Neither Egyptian nor Italian authorities would confirm the new round of interrogations, the attorney visits or any other development in the case.

Joe Stork, the deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, who has monitored Nasr's case, said he had no information about the attorney visits or the questioning. He added that his requests to Egyptian authorities for information about Nasr's prison conditions haven't been answered.

"The Italians also had been trying to meet with him themselves, or at least had requested to, but the Egyptians didn't let them," Stork said by phone from Washington.

Zayat said he believes that Italian pressure was the reason he finally was allowed to meet with Nasr.

During one of his three visits to the prison, Zayat used his cell phone to take the first known photos of Nasr in detention. The pictures show a haggard-looking, bearded man wearing a white skullcap and prison uniform. His eyes are cast down, and he appears thinner than in photos taken before his capture. Efforts to transfer the photos from Zayat's phone were unsuccessful.

Zayat, who himself was once jailed in Egypt for Islamist activities, said an Egyptian security agent sat in on the visits despite a permission slip granting Zayat private access to his client.

"He just really wanted to talk to someone after so long in isolation," Zayat said. "He was very concerned about his wife and children. And he wants to be compensated for his misery of the past three years. He just wants to live in peace with his family, somewhere outside of Egypt."

Zayat said Nasr told him he'd tried three times to commit suicide and that a prison doctor had treated him for poor nutrition and digestive problems. Nasr's family said he'd staged hunger strikes to protest his conditions at the prison and at least once had to be fed intravenously.

"His morale was extremely low," Zayat said. "He's very thin, he's sad, he's confused. He's in very bad shape."

Nasr's meeting with Zayat provided the most extensive account to date of the 43-year-old's journey into Egyptian custody.

Nasr first caught the attention of Egyptian authorities in the 1990s during a government crackdown on religious extremists believed to be associated with banned Islamist groups. Nasr denied involvement with any network, but he shared the militant ideology and feared he would be rounded up in the government's wide net, Zayat said. He said Nasr sought work in Jordan, then moved to Yemen because "it was a safe harbor. The Yemenis weren't turning over wanted Egyptians."

In Yemen, Zayat said, Nasr joined an Islamic relief organization and agreed to volunteer as an aid worker in Pakistan and Albania. Other published accounts quote authorities as saying he fought with Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan and the Balkans during that period. Nasr married an Albanian woman and had two children with her, but he left his family behind to slip into Italy illegally in 1997, Zayat said.

In Italy, where he won refugee status, Nasr married a second time, to Nabila Ghali, an Egyptian woman who has a teenage son from a previous marriage. Ghali, speaking by phone from Milan on Tuesday, said her husband was a pious man and a good father. She said Nasr was deeply committed to a mosque in Milan.

"From the mosque, he criticized and condemned the American administration's treatment of Muslims," Zayat said. "But he denies participating in any fighting in the countries he visited. He never joined any violent group. He didn't support them with money or weapons or anything. He just shares the ideology."

Zayat said his client told him he was walking to noon prayers at the mosque when the CIA agents ambushed him, subdued him by spraying chemicals in his face and took him by plane to a U.S. base in Germany. Zayat said his client was stripped and beaten during the night he spent in U.S. custody before he was turned over to Egyptian officials the next day.

"He's been exposed to torture ever since he was kidnapped in Italy," Zayat said. "He said he was beaten even on the plane that took him to Germany before he was handed to Egypt."

Zayat said Nasr told him that Egyptian security guards stripped him to his underwear, blindfolded him and bound his arms during interrogation sessions in his first few weeks of detention. Nasr was released in April 2004 and immediately called his wife and other associates in Milan. Italian authorities still had wiretaps on his wife's phone and have said that's how they learned he was in Egypt.

Egyptian security officials were incensed that Nasr told his family and friends about the interrogations, Zayat said, so they imprisoned him again in May 2004, just weeks after his release. He's been in custody ever since.

"The security forces had warned him not to talk about the conditions under which he was held, but he told his wife and friends what had happened," Zayat said. "He's the preaching kind. That's what got him into trouble in the first place."

In separate telephone interviews, Ghali and Nasr's sister in Egypt, who asked to be identified only as Umm Omar, said relatives were allowed to visit him briefly in October 2004 at a holding cell at a police station in Alexandria, Nasr's hometown.

A year later, Ghali said, she was permitted another visit with her husband at the prison near Cairo. His family members said they've had no other direct contact with Nasr because he's banned from making phone calls or writing letters. Their only information on the case comes from Zayat and Egyptian prosecutors.

"We know that he's been tortured and beaten. His hearing is totally gone in the left ear, and in the right, the hearing is very weak," said Umm Omar in a telephone interview from Alexandria. "He told us that the authorities literally are driving him crazy because he is confined to a small room, an underground dungeon. It drives him to talk to himself. His mental state is very, very bad."

Nasr's sister and wife said the family was elated when they heard he finally was allowed to meet with an attorney. They said they're praying it signals a break in the case, a first step toward his release. The family plans to bring Nasr's two children, Sara, 12, and Omar, 10, from Albania to Egypt this summer in hopes that they'll also be allowed to see their father.

"I used to tell him, `Forget about all that has happened. Be patient and count it as your good deeds with God,'" said Ghali, her voice quivering on the phone line. "Now, I just wait for any link to him and any hint of hope."

Italy's new Prime Minister Romano Prodi, whose center-left coalition defeated the center-right coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in elections last month, has yet to comment publicly on the Nasr case. The Milan prosecutor, Armando Spataro, said last month that he will ask the new government to request the extradition from the United States of the 22 Americans charged in the case.

———

(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Miret el-Naggar contributed to this report from Cairo.)

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