BERLIN -- Pressure is growing on the United States to respond to allegations that its agents were involved in spiriting terrorist suspects out of three European countries and sending them to nations where they may have been tortured.
In Italy, a judge said this week that foreign intelligence officials "kidnapped" an Egyptian suspect in Milan two years ago and took him to a U.S. base from where he was flown home.
We know it's not right to send people back to torture. That's criminal. That's the one factor that ties all these cases together right now.
Human Rights Watch
In Germany, a Munich prosecutor is preparing a batch of questions to U.S. authorities on the case of a Lebanese-born German who says he was arrested in Macedonia on New Year's Eve 2003 and flown by U.S. agents to a jail in Afghanistan.
And in Sweden, a parliamentary ombudsman has criticized the security services over the expulsion of two Egyptian terrorism suspects who were handed over to U.S. agents and flown home aboard a U.S. government-leased plane in 2001.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch said there was credible evidence the pair had been tortured while being held incommunicado for five weeks after their return. One was later convicted in a "patently unfair" trial.
"We know it's not right to send people back to torture. That's criminal. That's the one factor that ties all these cases together right now," Julia Hall of Human Rights Watch said in a telephone interview.
"But whether they're kidnappings, whether they're abductions, whether they occur always with the collaboration of security services in the host country -- these are things that still have yet to be determined."
ASSURANCES AGAINST TORTURE
Secret transfers of suspects to foreign states for interrogation are an acknowledged tool of the United States in the war on terrorism, but it denies charges that the practice -- known as rendition -- amounts to outsourcing torture.
"(In) the post-9/11 world, the United States must make sure we protect our people and our friends from attack ... And one way to do so is to arrest people and send them back to their country of origin with the promise that they won't be tortured," President George W. Bush said in March.
"We seek assurances that nobody will be tortured when we render a person back to their home country."
Human Rights Watch argues such assurances are worthless.
The latest twist came in the case of Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who disappeared from a Milan street in February 2003.
Italian judge Guido Salvini said in a court document, obtained by Reuters: "It is now possible to affirm with certainty that he was kidnapped by people belonging to foreign intelligence networks interested in interrogating him and neutralizing him, to then hand him over to Egyptian authorities."
Although he did not identify the foreign agents responsible, Salvini said Nasr had been "taken to an American base, interrogated and beaten and taken the next day on board a U.S. military plane" to Egypt.
It was not until a year later, Salvini said, that Nasr was heard from again in phone calls, including one to his wife. Italian media have reported he told her he was tortured in Egypt and partially lost his hearing.
Salvini is investigating suspects linked to Nasr and is not responsible for the probe into his disappearance. That case is being handled by the Milan prosecutor's office, which said Salvini did not have access to all the documents and expressed surprise at his conclusions.
But his comments were the hardest yet by judicial authorities in Europe on the alleged renditions.
In Germany, Munich prosecutor Martin Hofmann said he was finalizing an official request to the United States for information on the case of Khaled el-Masri.
The German citizen says he was arrested in Macedonia on Dec. 31, 2003 and flown by U.S. agents to an Afghan jail. Only five months after being seized was he flown back to Europe and dumped without explanation in Albania, from where he made his way home.
NBC News reported last month that Masri was snatched because he shared the same name as an al Qaeda suspect. It said even when investigators realized the error, he was held another six weeks in an Afghan jail dubbed the Salt Pit before being freed.
"I'm investigating kidnapping, physical injury, duress and deprivation of freedom," said Hofmann, who is also seeking information from Macedonia and Albania.
But investigators face formidable obstacles to prove what happened and hold anyone to account. Hofmann said he could not bring any charges unless he could identify those individuals involved in Masri's alleged abduction.
"The problem is, I need the persons responsible. So far the investigation is into 'unknown persons'," he told Reuters.
© Reuters 2005