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Veiled testimony at trial

Cleric's wife recalls talking to him after he was allegedly abducted by the CIA in Italy and tortured in Egypt.

May 15, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MILAN, ITALY — From behind the black veil concealing her face, Nabila Ghali blinked rapidly, her voice quivering, as she testified about the torture her husband said was inflicted after he was allegedly kidnapped by CIA agents and dumped in an Egyptian prison.

The torturers used electrical shocks "all over his body," Ghali told a packed courtroom Wednesday, detailing the disappearance and ordeal of Abu Omar, a radical Egyptian cleric snatched from the streets of Milan five years ago.

Ghali became the first witness to testify in the trial of 26 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, who are accused of kidnapping Abu Omar and flying him to Egypt as part of the U.S. government's secret "extraordinary rendition" program. Seven Italians, including the country's former top spymaster, are codefendants; the Americans are being tried in absentia.

The Abu Omar case and the decision of Italian prosecutors to pursue it have provided the clearest exposure yet of one of the Bush administration's most controversial counter-terrorism tactics.

In other action, Judge Oscar Magi also ruled that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could be forced to testify in the trial. Never has a head of government had to speak publicly under oath about the murky world of renditions. Berlusconi would be called as a defense witness, however, which limits the scope of questions.

Attorneys for two defendants -- Nicolo Pollari, the former head of Italy's elite military intelligence service, and Marco Mancini, his No. 2 -- want Berlusconi to testify that evidence protected by state-secrecy laws exonerates them.

Romano Prodi, who served as prime minister between two Berlusconi terms, can also be called to testify, Magi ruled.

Most of Wednesday's hearing was taken up with the questioning of Ghali, who also asserted that Abu Omar, whose real name is Hassan Osama Nasr, has been offered a huge amount of money from a mysterious "security service" figure to drop his allegations.

It was Ghali's telephone conversation with Abu Omar 14 months after he was abducted that touched off the investigation. The call from Egypt to Milan was the first sign that the missing cleric was still alive, and Italian police investigating his possible ties to terrorist groups were eavesdropping.

Ghali, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter, did not offer much in the way of revelations; she has previously spoken to journalists and human rights investigators. But her dramatic court appearance gave life to a legal proceeding whose arguments have been largely technical and tedious.

Ghali, 39, was covered head to toe in a steel-gray tunic, long gray skirt, long black gloves and black veil and head scarf containing the tiniest of slits through which only her eyes flashed.

She recounted the now familiar sequence of events on the morning of Feb. 17, 2003, when people speaking Italian intercepted Abu Omar as he walked to the mosque, bundled him into a van and sped away. He has said he was blindfolded, drugged and stripped before being flown in a small CIA jet to Egypt, where he landed as the morning call to prayer filled the air.

Ghali described the torture that Abu Omar has said left him with permanent physical and psychological damage and nearly drove him to suicide, including beatings, being hung as though crucified and electrical shocks applied to his genitals and other body parts.

These last words came slowly, hesitantly, an emotional portion of an otherwise straightforward testimony. Her gloved hands fluttered to her blinking eyes and she appeared to weep.

Ghali's heavy covering provided problems for the court. Granting a request from her attorney Luca Bauccio, the judge banished all cameras from the courtroom and allowed her to begin her testimony from behind a screen.

Once behind the screen, she was required to remove part of the veil so the judge could compare her face to the picture on her identification document.

"I will verify she is Mrs. Nabila Ghali," Magi said. "What's the problem?"

"The problem is not that we cannot see her but that what she is wearing is a symbol of fanaticism and extremism," Titta Madia, defense attorney for Pollari, said later. He added that her testimony was "hostile and aggressive" and suggested she was motivated by hatred for the U.S. and the West.

Lead prosecutor Armando Spataro said he hoped her presence would achieve two goals. Though secondhand, her accounts of what happened will have added weight if Abu Omar does not testify. Prosecutors want to call on Abu Omar but say that Egyptian authorities have not granted him permission to travel to Italy. Another complication: He would face possible criminal charges if he returned. Italian anti-terrorism police say they were on the verge of arresting Abu Omar when the CIA intervened.

Prosecutors also used Ghali to verify the authenticity of two letters, one written by her and the other by her husband. If he doesn't testify, the letters, too, will be entered as evidence.

In the letter attributed to him, obtained by The Times, Abu Omar writes of repeated imprisonments and again details his treatment in an Egyptian cell: "I was feted with a festival of torture."

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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