Alleged CIA abduction of wanted man draws little attention in Egypt

10,000 to 20,000 political prisoners being held there

July 03, 2005|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt - Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, the man at the center of an international controversy over an alleged CIA abduction, is being held in Damanhour prison outside Alexandria though he has not been accused of a crime, according to his lawyer, Muntassir al-Zayyat, a Cairo attorney who defends many Islamists.

The case has attracted huge publicity in Italy, where lawmakers are enraged at what many regard as a flagrant abuse of Italian laws by the U.S. government. Italian authorities who have charged 13 CIA operatives with his abduction say that they don't know the whereabouts of Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, and that their requests for information from Egyptian authorities have gone unanswered.

But in Egypt, where such "renditions" of wanted fugitives are relatively common, the circumstances of Abu Omar's seizure in Milan and his delivery to Egypt have drawn little attention.

There are 10,000 to 20,000 political prisoners being held in Egypt, and the case of one is unlikely to attract much interest, said Hafez Abu Saeda, a lawyer who heads the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights.

The Egyptian government has long feared the rise of militant Islam and has cracked down on fundamentalist groups for decades.

At the Nasr family's modest apartment in the working-class Alexandria neighborhood of Moharem Bek, his brother, Hisham, and mother, Safinaz, were too afraid to speak about Abu Omar and threatened to call police when approached by a reporter.

Hisham Nasr later apologized in a telephone interview, though he still declined to discuss his brother's whereabouts beyond saying that he is still in prison and that the family is in regular contact with him.

"Please don't make trouble for us," he said. "He is in prison. I can't talk about it. Please forgive me."

Several neighbors who asked not to be named said they only dimly remembered the young man they knew as Osama. He left the neighborhood more than two decades ago to study in Cairo, became active in Islamic politics and subsequently left the country.

For more than a decade, the Egyptian authorities have been hunting down suspected extremists abroad and bringing them to Egypt, where they are routinely tortured and detained without trial, according to a Human Rights Watch report last month that documented 63 such cases. U.S. authorities offered assistance in several of the cases, the group said.

In many instances, those brought back to Egypt are not wanted in connection with a specific crime but are suspected of helping to fund and organize Islamic militants working against the Egyptian government, Abu Saeda said.

"They suspect the militants living in Western countries of providing the ones in Egypt with weapons and money," he said. "They keep them in prison not because they've committed a crime but to prevent them from committing crimes in the future."

Abu Omar was released in April 2004, 14 months after his abduction, but was locked up again 20 days later because he disobeyed instructions not to discuss what had happened to him, al-Zayyat said.

"He was released because he wasn't charged with anything," the lawyer said. "Apparently he talked too much when he was released. He called his friends in Italy and told them he was abducted and tortured, so of course they arrested him again."

In February of this year, Abu Omar's second wife, Nabila Ghali, visited Abu Omar in prison, according to information contained in the Italian arrest warrant issued for Abu Omar. According to the document, Ghali said Abu Omar "showed signs of recent torture, with major damage to his eyesight."

When Al-Zayyat asked the Egyptian authorities why they were holding him, he was told only that Abu Omar is regarded as "a dangerous factor," he said.

But Al-Zayyat said he was confident Abu Omar would be released. "It is only a matter of time," he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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