Washington, D.C. - A radical Egyptian cleric who was kidnapped off the streets of Milan, Italy by the CIA in 2003 is speaking out in defense of one of the CIA officer convicted for her alleged participation in his illegal abduction known as extraordinary rendition.
In a phone interview with The Guardian, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, know as Abu Omar, said that he believed former CIA officer Sabrina De Sousa, 60, due to be extradited to Italy to serve a four-year prison sentence, was simply a scapegoat for the political elite in the U.S.
“Sabrina and the others who were convicted are scapegoats. The US administration sacrificed them. All of those higher up in the hierarchy are enjoying their immunity,” he said. “These people higher up, without doubt they should be convicted in this case. They should face trial.”
Under the Bush-era program, the CIA conspired with at least 54 foreign governments to build a highly classified extraordinary rendition and detention program that spanned the globe. Extraordinary rendition is the transfer—without legal process—of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation.
The failed program stripped people of their most basic human rights, facilitated gruesome forms of torture, captured many of the wrong people, and damaged the United States’ reputation even further.
“Black sites” – secret prisons run by the CIA on foreign soil – were a staple of the program. Suspects would simply vanish into these sites leaving no trace, no legal process and no conviction for any criminal or terrorist activity.
According to a report in The Guardian:
Abu Omar’s story began on 18 February 2003 when he was stopped on a street in Milan, grabbed from behind and pulled inside a car by CIA officers, allegedly working with the help of Italian officials. The radical cleric, who had been granted political asylum in Italy in 2001 and was already the subject of a terrorism investigation by other Italian officials, leading to his eventual conviction in absentia, was then transported to Cairo via Germany, where he was allegedly imprisoned, interrogated and tortured.
The case was investigated by an independent prosecutor in Italy, leading to the conviction in 2009 of 22 CIA operatives and other US officials for orchestrating the kidnapping. The US officials, including De Sousa, who was publicly a state department official in Milan but actually an undercover CIA officer, were convicted in absentia as they had left Italy before the trial began. Some officials, including Italians, were later pardoned.
In 2005, the kidnapping of Abu Omar became public knowledge, exposing in great detail the top-secret counterterrorism program that snatched at least 136 individuals off the street and transferred them to participating countries – without legal process -- that would then often use torture methods under the auspices of “enhanced interrogation” techniques in an effort to elicit intelligence.
De Sousa was never extended diplomatic immunity by the U.S. government, and after traveling to Portugal to visit family last year, she was detained on a European arrest warrant at the Lisbon airport when she attempted to travel to India to visit her 90-year-old mother.
In an interview with Loud & Clear, former CIA analyst John Kiriakou, the first American official to expose the use of torture as official U.S. policy, and who was ultimately persecuted and prosecuted by the U.S. government for that act of patriotism, detailed the De Sousa case.
“Unfortunately, Abu Omar was the wrong guy, which happened a lot in CIA operations in the last decade,” said Kiriakou. “There were a lot of kidnappings of innocent people who happened to be the wrong person, people who may have, like Abu Omar, made fiery sermons after Friday prayers, but had nothing to do with terrorism.”
“The Italian government investigated the case and identified two dozen CIA officers who made a major mistake,” explained the former CIA analyst. “They traveled to Italy in alias but then used their hotel phones to call their spouses back in the US. The Italians were able to track the calls and identify everyone involved in the operations.”
“Miss De Sousa appears to be the fall guy in this entire episode,” remarked Kiriakou. “The CIA, for whatever reason, elected to not invoke diplomatic immunity for the agents. Some were convicted but successfully appealed to the Italian government for a pardon, but for some reason De Sousa did not get immunity or a pardon.”
De Sousa maintains that she played an extremely minor role in the very early stages of the operation, prior to Abu Omar even being named as a potential target, serving as an interpreter for a discussion between Italian and U.S. intelligence.
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“But at that point, rendition was just a concept,” she told The Washington Post, stressing that Abu Omar was never even discussed.
As for the man kidnapped by the CIA, he says he has never seen De Sousa and that he doesn’t know whether she played a role in his kidnapping.
“Now she’s 60 years old. If media reports are right, she and the people who kidnapped me were the reason why I left my job in Italy, and a lot of trouble to me and my family happened because of that. They are the reason behind my physical disabilities now. The Italian prosecution actually accused her of this."
“She’s threatened to be sentenced between four and six years, and I don’t wish that for her. I’ve been in prison before, and I don’t wish for the same to happen to her, either as a friend or a foe. Especially because she’s a woman."
Abu Omar noted that De Sousa was traveling to visit her 90-year-old mother in India and that he had not been allowed to pay final respects to his mother after her passing due to his kidnapping and the Egypt interior minister's refusal to release him.
“[He] refused for me to attend my own mother’s funeral, and Sabrina could be subjected to the same problem,” he said. “As a Muslim, I should wish for her to be pardoned.”
Speaking to the corrupt nature of the regime which De Sousa once served, an anonymous U.S. official told The Guardian that that De Sousa had made a decision to break ties with the government when she moved to sue the U.S. for not invoking diplomatic immunity to help her. Ironically, the move to sue was done solely out of necessity after being left out to dry by the U.S. government and having virtually no other recourse after the Italian Supreme Court upheld her conviction in 2012.
According to a report in The Washington Post:
Though she lost her lawsuit against the government for not granting her immunity, she sued the CIA and the Defense and State departments in November 2014. In the suit, she argues that the agencies violated the Freedom of Information Act after they refused to confirm or deny the existence of documents she had requested showing that the rendition was approved by the CIA and senior government officials.
As part of her FOIA request, De Sousa has sought documents showing why her name was not on a U.S. government list put forward in 2014 to the Italians asking for a pardon. (Some of the Americans convicted by the Italians did receive full pardons.) Also, she is seeking a National Clandestine Service investigation into the rendition.
“When I asked for the CIA review, I was told I couldn’t see it because I wasn’t involved in the rendition, and therefore, I was not investigated,” she said.
Laura Pitter, a senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, while not wanting to comment on specifics in the case, noted that De Sousa shouldn’t the be first and only person held responsible for the CIA program.
“It should be the senior officials and contractors involved in authorizing and implementing the program and those who actually inflicted the torture on individuals in U.S. custody,” Pitter said.
Abu Omar believes that De Sousa’s is a humanitarian case, due to the fact that she “exposed injustices and revealed the injustices through the media.” De Sousa has been a vocal critic of the U.S. government, and in 2013 made allegations that the threat posed by Abu Omar was greatly overblown by the former CIA station chief Jefferey Castelli in order to get approval for the abduction from then-CIA director George Tenet.
When the man De Sousa is accused of helping kidnap says that she is simply a “scapegoat” being sacrificed by the political elite in the U.S., and states that he hopes for her to be pardoned, perhaps Americans should listen.