Abu Omar: tales of the involuntary voyage of an Egyptian cleric (Part 1)

Alexandra Sandels
9 Min Read

ALEXANDRIA: The term extraordinary rendition, the extrajudicial transfer of terrorist suspects from one state to another for interrogation, has become one of the most heated topics among the international community since the start of the US-led war on terror.

Following the attacks of Sept.11, 2001, critics and rights groups argued that hundreds of people suspected of being terrorists or supporting terrorist organizations have been transferred to third party states, including Egypt, Syria, and Morocco on the orders of the US secret service. Many of the so-called ‘ghost detainees’ have allegedly been subject to torture and abuse. Some of them remain ghosts to this day.

One ‘ghost’ who recently returned to reality is Egyptian cleric Abu Omar, also known as Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who in 2003 was kidnapped in an open street in Milan and transferred to Egypt via Germany by US and Italian secret services, on suspicion of terrorist links.

His case has been referred to by Swiss senator Dick Marty as a “perfect example of extraordinary rendition.

On Feb. 11 this year, the cleric was released from four years of imprisonment in Egypt and reunited with his family in Alexandria. The Daily Star Egypt recently traveled to the Mediterranean coastal city to meet with the charismatic Imam.

“Come, come, a Galabeya clad figure tells us from a distance and gesticulates towards the entrance of a small apartment building. Mounting the narrow staircase in darkness, Abu Omar welcomes us into his home, a neat apartment full of decorations meticulously kept together by his wife of six years, Nabila.

“It’s been more than two months since I was let out of prison now. I finally feel I am getting back to normal – slowly but surely, Abu Omar tells us while sipping a cup of tea.

When The Daily Star Egypt asks him how it felt to finally come home, our cleric smiles and shakes his head.

“It was an odd experience. You see, not all of my neighbors know what happened to me. So when I came walking up the street carrying a bag of clothes and some blankets after my release from prison, many of them thought I was returning from Italy like that. People in the neighborhood stopped me and asked why I was coming back from Europe with only a bag of clothes. It took me a while to explain to them, Abu Omar says almost laughing.

“But yes, it feels incredible to be home with my family, he adds.

The release of Abu Omar on Feb. 11 sparked a media frenzy which resulted in constant occupation of the Imam’s Alexandria residence by both local and international media.

“The reporters were waiting outside my window all day long. The state security officials who were monitoring my building were just shaking their heads asking journalists to go home and find better things to do, he says. At the moment, Abu Omar and his lawyer Montasser Al-Zayat, a well-known Egyptian Islamist lawyer, are preparing for a June 8 trial in Italy where 26 American CIA agents and seven Italian secret service agents are to be tried for his unlawful abduction.

“Montasser was recently in Italy where he met with officials involved in the trial. The meetings reportedly went well, so I hope the trial comes through. I would really like to attend it myself, but unfortunately I am banned from travel, Abu Omar continues.

It is still unclear whether the US agents will be tried in absentia or whether Italy is seeking their extradition.

Furthermore, the Imam says he is suing the American and Italian governments for $20 million for his suffering.

“I was offered $2 million by the US government in 2006 to ‘forget the whole case’. That’s not enough for my suffering. They ruined years of my life. I denied the offer of course, he emphasizes.

Abu Omar’s four year long voyage is indeed a remarkable odyssey that perhaps begins not at the time of his kidnapping in Milan but several years earlier in his home country of Egypt.

Leaning back in his chair, he tells us: “I used to be a member of Al Wafd party here in Alex. I was writing for the publication Akhbar Al-Youm together with Ayman Nour. I wasn’t what you’d call an ‘Islamist’ at all.

According to Abu Omar, it wasn’t until his friend from the Islamist organization Al Gamaa Al Islamiya, declared a banned terrorist organization, invited him to come to one of the group’s meetings that his religious interest started growing significantly.

As a member of the radical group, Abu Omar started to face problems with the Egyptian authorities.

“The Egyptian state security continuously harassed me. They even detained me for six months back in 1989. When they let me out, they threatened me and said they would come after me again. I had had enough at that point, Abu Omar shakes his head.

The continuous alleged threats and harassment made a young Abu Omar pack his bag and head to Jordan in search of a more peaceful life.

However, life in the Jordanian capital of Amman was perhaps not what Abu Omar had expected. He had a hard time finding employment and quickly grew bored of the desert kingdom.

“What was I supposed to do in Jordan? There were no jobs or anything there for me. I guess the most important thing for me back then was to simply get out of Egypt, he stresses.

From Amman, Abu Omar steered west to Yemen where he taught children at an Islamic institute and worked part time at a library.

Due to low salaries, he only stayed a few months in Yemen before heading to Pakistan in 1991 to work with immigrant children from Afghanistan.

“I was teaching Arabic and the Quran to children. It was a really nice time of my life, Abu Omar adds.

However, as the Egyptian government started cracking down on Islamists and alleged terrorist groups in the early 1990s, the situation quickly changed for Abu Omar.

“Everyone in Pakistan and Afghanistan was all of a sudden considered a terrorist. Egyptians living there started having problems with the Egyptian authorities, including me. I was and am against anything to do with terrorism, he continues.

In late 1991, Abu Omar left Pakistan and moved to the Albanian capital of Tirana to work for an aid organization importing aid supplies into Albania from abroad.

He also married his first wife, an Albanian woman with Australian roots.

“I had no problems in Albania. I was working and living happily with my wife. Everything was good.

Everything seemed picture perfect until 1995 when one of Abu Omar’s fellow employees ‘got in trouble with the Albanian police,’ as Abu Omar puts it.

According to Abu Omar, the Albanian authorities grew suspicious of him as well ‘for some reason,’ resulting in his arrest.

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