Italy denies helping US abduct cleric

One week ago a judge in Milan signed warrants for the arrest of 13 of the agents, which has thrown covert CIA activities outside the US under the spotlight and drawn attention to the increasingly common practice of so-called "extraordinary rendition", by which the US seizes terror suspects and removes them to countries known for their use of torture.

Carlo Giovanardi, the minister for parliamentary relations, told parliament that the abduction of the Milan-based imam, Abu Omar, "was never brought to the attention of the executive or of the national institutions" – a common euphemism in Italy for the secret services. He said that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had summoned the American ambassador Mel Sembler to explain the incident when the latter returns to Rome, probably today.

Abu Omar, whose real name is Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, was grabbed by a group of people while walking towards his mosque in Milan. An Egyptian woman testified that she saw him forced into the back of a van and driven away. Last year, the cleric telephoned his family from Egypt to say he had been tortured with electric shocks. It is believed he is still in prison in Egypt.

Yesterday, The Washington Post claimed that Italian secret services had prior knowledge of the abduction and had approved it.

"Before a CIA paramilitary team was deployed to snatch a radical Islamic cleric off the streets of Milan ... the CIA station chief in Rome briefed and sought approval from his counterpart in Italy, according to three CIA veterans with knowledge of the operation," the paper said. The report went on: "Both the CIA and the Italian service agreed beforehand that if the unusual operation was to become public, as it has, neither side would confirm its involvement." According to the Post, only a tiny number of people had been told about the action, and they did not include magistrates or police in Milan.

In the Italian senate yesterday, a senator with the Green party, Tana de Zulueta, challenged Mr Giovanardi to refute the Washington Post report. He responded: "It's false."

The indictment of the CIA agents is the first time America's right to forcibly remove people from the countries in which they are legally resident and whisk them off to be tortured has been challenged in the courts of an allied country.

Mr Giovanardi's denial of prior knowledge got a contemptuous reaction from Luigi Malabarba, leader of Rifondazione Comunista in the senate and a member of the parliamentary committee on the secret services. "The [Italian] political authorities and the police were informed by the CIA and the US embassy in Rome," he said, "and they agreed to the abduction of Abu Omar because they share the modality of prosecuting the preventive war against terrorism as defined by the Bush administration. They obviously cannot admit that because it violates the constitution, Italian law and international treaties. Giovanardi is a liar."

The Washington Post report said it was unclear how high in the Italian intelligence service the information was shared or whether the office of Mr Berlusconi was aware.

Italian commentators made much of the fact that it was a junior minister, Mr Giovanardi, who was called on to make the statement rather than Mr Berlusconi himself, or one of his senior ministers.

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