Take a walk down via Guerzoni

A couple of posts ago, my colleague Steve B was talking about what it must be like to be walking down a street in Madrid when you get stopped by what turns out to be a violent gang of police officers ….  … which made me think … about the same thing applied to Milan, in northern Italy. Because, famously, it was on an ordinary street in la bella citta’ di Milano that an Egyptian man was snatched by a CIA team working with the Italian intelligence services back in 2003. The abduction, then rendition, unofficial detention and alleged torture of this man – Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, known to family and friends as Abu Omar (“the father of Omar”) – is now big news. It’s become notorious, just like the efforts of some in Italian officialdom to block the case in the courts. But yesterday’s guilty verdicts and prison sentences pronounced – in absentia – against 23 Americans – plus two convictions of Italian intelligence officers – are definitely explosive stuff. The Guardian says it’s the first criminal trial into “extraordinary rendition” anywhere in the world, which, when you think about it, is itself quite extraordinary. All those abductions – numbering hundreds, if not thousands – during the “war on terror”, and only one criminal case against the abductors so far reaching a conclusion. So what happened in this case? Well, check out Stephen Grey’s gripping “The Italian Job” chapter in his excellent, very readable Ghost Plane book for a full account, but here’s the potted version.  Abu Omar, a cleric, was an Egyptian refugee in Italy. He was, as they say, “known” to the authorities, meaning the Italian intelligence services were watching him, thinking he might be plotting something. On 17 February he was making the 10-minute walk from his home to a local Milanese mosque in via Guerzoni for midday prayers when some men stepped in front of him and demanded to see his ID. They sprayed something into his face and bundled him into a van. He was blindfolded, beaten and threatened with death. He was driven for five hours to a military base (later identified as in north-east Italy, near Venice). Then he was flown to another military base (later identified as in Germany). His third involuntary journey took him to Cairo. There he was held, in secret, as a suspected “terrorist” for four years. For the first seven months he was, he says, tortured repeatedly, including with white noise, which damaged his hearing, and with electric shocks to his genitals, which left him incontinent.  That’s the barebones of it. We probably wouldn’t know any of this if it hadn’t been for the determination of Armando Spataro, a senior prosecutor in Milan. He led an investigation that tracked down the big CIA team that had organised the snatch. The CIA had left a huge electronic trail. They incautiously used newly-registered mobile phones (traced by Spataro's investigators using anti-mafia policing techniques) and clocked up massive bills on fake credit cards in Milan’s luxury hotels. (Two of these spooks alone spent nearly $18,000 of American taxpayer’s money on their three-week hotel bill).  So now, after a dogged investigation and a long court case totally boycotted by the Americans and nearly derailed by challenges by some within the Italian government, we have these historic prosecutions in a rendition case. Good news.  But what we don’t have is any CIA perpetrators in the dock (the named US officials are now all officially “fugitives” from the Italian law). We also don’t have any Egyptians facing the music for their crimes. And, dismayingly, cases against senior Italian and American officials have been dropped on the grounds of national “secrecy” or because they have “immunity” from prosecution. But, still, the edifice of impunity is cracking….  As it happens, as a regular visitor to Milan I’ve probably walked down via Guerzoni a few times myself. Next time I’m there I’ll now be reminded there’s a bit more to la dolce vita in modern Milan than giant billboard posters of the Beckhams in their Armani undies (which you see everywhere). There’s also extraordinary rendition, Italian-style.

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