US & Canada

Q&A: Abu Omar rendition

Abu Omar in Cairo in 2007
Image caption Muslim cleric Abu Omar was born in Egypt and was granted asylum in Italy

An Egyptian cleric abducted in Italy as part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programme has been sentenced in absentia to six years in prison on terrorism charges by a court in Milan.

In 2003, Abu Omar was seized while walking down a street in Milan and secretly flown to Egypt for interrogation. He alleges he was tortured in Egypt before being released. Italy convicted 23 Americans over his abduction.

Who is Abu Omar and what happened to him?

Abu Omar - real name Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr - was living in Milan when, in 2003, he was snatched off the street and taken, via US air bases in Italy and Germany, to Egypt.

He was held there for four years without a trial, before being released. He says he was tortured while being held.

At the time of his abduction he was suspected by the Italian authorities of recruiting fighters for terrorist causes. In December 2013, he was convicted in absentia of "criminal association for the purposes of international terrorism" by a court in Milan and sentenced to six years in prison. Italian prosecutors said he had collaborated with 13 others between 2000 and 2003 "with the aim of carrying out acts of terrorist violence in Italy and abroad".

Why was he taken?

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, the CIA arrested many people it suspected of being involved with al-Qaeda and secretly flew them around the world for interrogation.

They were held in jails in various countries, without legal protection under US law.

The practice became known as "extraordinary rendition".

Why is it called extraordinary rendition?

Rendition is a technical term meaning the transfer of a person from one country to another.

Extraordinary in this instance means that the transfer is extralegal, i.e. not authorised via the usual judicial channels for inter-country transfer.

Why is the programme so controversial?

The whole process takes place outside of the law and is kept secret; this makes it an "affront to the rule of law," according to Liberty.

The practice has been heavily criticised because of widespread allegations that "rendered" suspects were tortured while detained in countries such as Syria and Egypt - and that the US knew this would happen.

The US admits that terror suspects were transferred for interrogation abroad, but denies authorising torture.

A report for Europe's human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, found that 14 European countries colluded with the secret flights programme.

Has anyone been held to account for this?

Image caption European countries have been accused of allowing CIA rendition flights to use their airports

The Italian prosecution of US and Italian citizens on charges relating to the kidnap of Abu Omar, which began in 2007, was the first trial relating to the CIA's extraordinary rendition programme.

Twenty-three Americans and two Italians were convicted by the Milan court two years later.

The Americans - all bar one of them CIA operatives - were tried in absentia as they had not been extradited from the US to Italy.

The convicted American who was not in the CIA - US Air Force Colonel Joseph Romano - has since been pardoned by the Italian president. Col Romano ran the US air base in northern Italy from which Abu Omar was flown out of the country.

What about the Italian authorities?

Italy's former intelligence chief, who resigned over the affair, was convicted at a retrial in February 2013 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Niccolo Pollari insisted he had known nothing about the kidnapping.

Is this still happening?

President Barack Obama spoke out against the practice as a candidate. Upon taking office, he ordered that suspects should no longer be held in secret CIA prisons in third countries.

However, a special task force set up by the newly elected president recommended that rendition be retained as a method, albeit with greater oversight of suspects' treatment in detention.

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