ROME — When Hassan Osama Nasr, a controversial Egyptian-born imam, vanished from the streets of Milan two years ago, his friends and family insisted he'd been kidnapped by American agents. Few people listened. But today it appears Italian judicial authorities may agree with them.
A leading prosecutor in Milan has opened an investigation into the February 2003 disappearance, which has the hallmarks of a so-called extraordinary rendition, in which American counter-terrorism agents seize and transport suspects to third countries without seeking court permission.
The right-wing administration of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has not commented on the case, although it seems unlikely that the U.S. would conduct an extraordinary rendition without at least the tacit approval of the Italian government.
The case has outraged Italian opposition politicians, who want to know whether their government is involved in what one called "the outsourcing of torture." Nasr reportedly resurfaced 15 months later in Egypt and said he had been kidnapped by American and Italian agents and taken to Egypt, where he was tortured. His current whereabouts are unclear.
Extraordinary renditions have apparently been used increasingly since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. U.S. agents reportedly grab suspects in one country and then transfer them to another country to be interrogated, sometimes with tactics not allowed on American soil, such as torture.
Most suspects are said to have been nabbed in countries such as Pakistan where the rule of law is tenuous and the actions are easier to conceal. It is extremely rare for an official in a country where a seizure takes place to launch an investigation, as the Italian prosecutor has done.
Nasr, widely known as Abu Omar, was a suspected militant affiliated with a mosque in Milan that U.S. and Italian investigators have long contended was a hotbed of Islamic extremism.
On the Trail
Last week, Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro went to the joint U.S.-Italian Aviano Air Base to demand records on vehicular and airplane traffic in and out of the base, officials familiar with the investigation said. Reports suggest that after Abu Omar was seized, he was bundled off to the air base, then flown to Egypt.
Spataro declined to discuss details of the case and would only say that an inquiry was underway that had led investigators to the base. "I can confirm only that I was in Aviano," he told the Los Angeles Times.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Italy confirmed that Spataro had visited the base and had submitted questions to Italian military officers there, who relayed the queries to American officials, following the prescribed protocol.
"We are responding appropriately, in accordance with our [U.S.-Italian] agreements," the spokesman, Benedict Duffy, said.
A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on the case. But intelligence officials are watching the investigation closely in the event that Spataro threatens to expose clandestine American agents or operations in Italy.
A former senior CIA operations officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency's "routine and practice" was to notify another government before U.S. agents snatched someone off their soil. He said he could not discuss the Abu Omar case because the details were classified.
Simona Howe, a spokeswoman for the Italian Embassy in Washington, said the embassy was aware of the investigation, but had no instructions to discuss it with U.S. officials.
'Not a Banana Republic'
Prime Minister Berlusconi is one of President Bush's most loyal allies, and Italy was one of the strongest Western European supporters of the war in Iraq, sending troops there despite widespread popular sentiment against it.
But Italy's judiciary is often at odds with the Berlusconi government. He has frequently criticized judges for what he considers their leftist tendencies, especially when they challenge the prime minister's policies.
Spataro and other prosecutors in Milan are known as crusaders who have tackled numerous terrorism cases and broken up several cells believed to have had ties to Al Qaeda militants and other networks in Europe.
News of Spataro's investigation into the Abu Omar case first broke in Italian newspapers, and prompted a protest last week in the Italian parliament by opposition politicians who demanded to know what the government knew about the operation.
Several said that if the reports of a kidnapping on the streets of Milan proved true, the incident would represent a serious breach of international law. "We are not a banana republic," said Marco Minniti of the Democrats of the Left Party.
"I want to know if Italy is involved in the outsourcing of torture," said Sen. Tana de Zulueta.
Italian media have cited a witness who says that on Feb. 17, 2003, Abu Omar was walking to Viale Jenner Mosque in Milan when a group of men surrounded him, bundled him into a minivan and sped away.