Abou Elkassim Britel is an Italian citizen of Moroccan ethnicity, married to an Italian convert to Islam. On 10th March 2002, whilst in Lahore translating books on Islam, he was detained on a false passport charge, and subsequently interrogated and tortured by Pakistani security services. Transferred to Islamabad to be questioned by US intelligence agents, he was prevented from contacting the Italian embassy to prove the authenticity of his passport. On 24th May 2002, he was rendered to Morocco (with the co-operation of the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs), where he was detained incommunicado in Témara by the Moroccan secret service until February 2003. Released without charge and granted a border pass by Italian Embassy, he was again arrested on 16th May 2003 to the frontier before the bomb attacks in Casablanca. He was brought to Témara in secret detention for other 4 months. Condemned to fifteen years in jail, his sentence was reduced to nine years on appeal. Despite the European Parliament having solicited the Italian government to obtain his immediate release, he remains incarcerated in the Äin Bourja prison of Casablanca, where he is to be released in 2012. Cageprisoners spoke exclusively to Britel’s wife, Khadija Anna Lucia Pighizzni, about her husband’s plight and her fight for justice.
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CAGEPRISONERS: How long had your husband been in Pakistan before he was first arrested?
KHADIJA PIGHIZZINI: My husband had been travelling since June 2001.
CP: What had brought your husband to Pakistan?
KP: Kassim and I had an ongoing project, involving the translation of Islamic books from Arabic to Italian. My husband was seeking funds to finance the translation of Tafsir Ibn Kathir. We have a small website, Islàmiqra' translations of topics and authentic Islamic texts for the education and spreading of Islam, (web.tiscali.it/islamiqra ) which I have updated very little during these years. It is an interesting project, useful for the Italian-speaking people who do not understand Arabic.
CP: When did you find out about the arrest of your husband?
KP: My husband disappeared on the 10th of March 2002. I had spoken to him on the phone that day. In the evening, he was stopped in Lahore at a police road block while he was travelling with his luggage on a taxi. As soon as they saw his Italian passport they told him it was false and took him to the police station. Then he disappeared until the 11th of February 2003.
CP: You claim your husband was tortured by Pakistani security services during his initial detention?
KP: Kassim still finds it difficult to relate what he’s been through. Even though he does speak about it now, he is not up to telling the whole story.
My husband was psychologically tortured with death threats against him and threats of violence against the female members of his family. They told him that the Italian ambassador was not interested in him “because he was a terrorist”.
As for the physical torture, I know he was beaten severely, with a cricket bat at times. The handcuffs he wore around his wrists were tied behind his back with chains and he would be hung from the prison bars or off the ceiling for a long time. He would be blindfolded and his hands and feet would be chained so that he could not defend himself nor predict where he was going to be hit. The cell did not include a toilet and he was not allowed to relieve himself except once every 24 hours, when he was given a bucket. For three days he was sleep deprived, while tied to a gate.
When I saw him again after 11 months, he still had patches of yellow on his skin where he’d been severely beaten. This treatment, inflicted on him by the Pakistani police and secret services, lasted a very long time. At the beginning of April 2002 after another violent interrogation, Kassim was in critical condition, exhausted and continuously prone to fainting, so they gave him medical attention for about a week.
My husband was transferred to Islamabad the 5th of May 2002, to the Pakistani secret services. He was then taken four times, tied and blindfolded, to a villa where he was interrogated by US agents
CP: In what way was your husband denied access to the Italian embassy in Pakistan?
KP: Kassim was never allowed to meet or talk with the Italian Ambassador, which was something my husband kept asking for, since the day he was stopped by the police. He wanted to prove the authenticity of his passport. He kept asking both the Pakistanis and the Americans.
CP: Do you feel the Italian government would have intervened had they known about his situation earlier?
KP: I believe that the Italian Government was aware all along of this situation because in the scripts I have noticed that it was mentioned how Italy had run an investigation about my husband and I. Furthermore, the interrogators knew a lot about our life in Italy.
CP: To what extent were US government agencies involved in the questioning of your husband?
KP: Kassim was interrogated four times in a villa where the Americans were based. He was taken there blindfolded and under great secrecy. He said he wouldn’t talk to the Americans because of the illegal nature of his situation, and also because they wouldn’t allow him to meet with the Italian ambassador. On the contrary, they claimed that the ambassador didn’t want to meet with him “because he was a terrorist”.
The head of the Pakistani secret services was present, and threatened to torture him. At that point Kassim said he would have them tried in The Hague, so they offered him money in exchange for information about Usama Bin Laden. My husband persisted in asking to speak to the Italian Ambassador. His attitude angered his interrogators, provoking them to swear against the Italian Ambassador, Italy, Europe and more subtle threats towards his family. On the last occasion, the interrogation was performed by a new person, who introduced himself as David Morgan. He said he had just arrived from Washington and wanted to know why Kassim was refusing to talk, to which my husband replied by reiterating that he wanted to speak to the Italian Ambassador. Once again they told him that the Ambassador didn’t want to talk to him, so my husband asked them to bring him the phone and let him speak to him directly. They refused to do so because he was “a prisoner”. At this stage, Morgan asked him several questions about his life and filled in a form. He informed him he would meet the Moroccan Ambassador, rather than the Italian one, but that meeting never took place.
After a few days the Pakistanis told him he would be going back to Italy.
CP: What is your response to this?
KP: I understood from an NGO report that the Americans were paying very well for non Pakistani prisoners, perhaps, because of this, my husband, like many others, was 'sold'.
The Pakistani police denied him all rights. He complained when he saw a policeman putting Kassim's wrist watch in his pocket - the policeman in turn just laughed at him.
CP: How much communication did you have with your husband during his imprisonment in Pakistan?
KP: I understood that something had happened to him, but didn’t know exactly what.
On the night of the 7th June 2002, his brother (who was also living in Italy) received a telephone call from someone who claimed to have been in prison with Kassim in Pakistan. The caller asked for something to be done urgently for Kassim, as his life was in danger.
However, what we didn’t know at that time was that Kassim had already been extraordinarily rendered via a CIA flight to Temara, Morocco, at the headquarters of the DST (Directorate for the Surveillance of the Territory).
CP: Do you know if he was granted legal access during that time?
KP: Yes, we know that he wasn’t given any rights whatsoever, it was no other than illegal and secret detention, he was never asked to sign anything nor was he ever tried for any crime.
CP: How long have you been married to your husband?
KP: We have been married now for 12 years. Our marriage has always been a source of joy and happiness for both of us. Even though Allah has not blessed us with any children, our relationship was still very strong and we tried living our lives based on the principles of Islam.
Kassim used to translate for me, initially to help me with the religion and from there the idea came to dedicate our time to translating books which were considered fundamental for Islam. We thought it was a way to help our community, the Italian Muslim community which was still very ’young’.
I would say that our relationship is healthy and fruitful because it allowed us to improve ourselves spiritually and for this I seek a reward with Allah. At the same time I thank Allah for this, it is a precious gift for both of us.
CP: What qualities make your husband special?
KP: My husband is an honest man, with sound morals. He is intelligent and inquisitive; he loves knowledge, just like me. However, he is more down-to-earth. He knows how to plan and write with patience and determination. He is observant and a good listener. We can have a heated discussion without causing bad feelings between us, as he can laugh at himself when needed.
CP: What effect has this ordeal had on you and his family?
KP: It’s been almost six years since my husband disappeared, and this has caused me perpetual suffering as I’ve never managed to get used to his absence. He left with a return ticket... but this is the destiny prescribed by Allah Ta’ala so we accept it, however painful it may be.
I work as a librarian and this allows me to provide for him and it pays for my travel expenses so that I can go to see him. My aged parents, my brothers and my sisters have all suffered. There have been very tense moments between them and me, especially when the newspapers were describing my husband as a dangerous terrorist. They witnessed my efforts, my sacrifices, my struggle. They’ve seen the truth slowly unravelling and today they are all waiting for Kassim’s release and wish it will be soon.
CP: Have the local community been supportive?
KP: No. In Bergamo, where we live, only within the last year or so have some people started realising what great injustice my husband has been suffering. A local MP, Ezio Locatelli, has put himself forward to plead with the Government to do some thing, followed by the Mayor Roberto Bruni, in May 2007.
In general, there is no real interest among the people and some of them believe, because he was actually convicted in Morocco, that he must be guilty. They hold such belief without knowing what exactly happened to my husband in general and specifically in Morocco.
The local newspaper had their headlines full of grand accusations, but never quite told the whole story. They never seem to miss an opportunity to write negative things against Muslims. There seem to be many people who are afraid; they react by insulting me verbally when I’m out on the streets or on the bus. I’m not sure if that’s due to my hijab or because they know who I am.
CP: How long was it before you came to know your husband had been rendered?
KP: I heard of Kassim’s rendition during his brief release in Temara, on the 11th of February 2003. I rushed to Morocco to take care of him, with the intention of taking him home.
I was very shocked, I couldn’t figure out why the Americans would have done this to him, a “nobody”, who had never held a public role. I couldn’t get it; renditions were unheard of in those days. I thought for a moment that perhaps they didn’t want to hand him over to Italy on account of his bruises and injuries, but the more I looked into the matter the more I realised that the Italian Government simply didn’t want him back. My suspicions were confirmed when I read the report of the Italian investigation, dated October 2006.
CP: What can you tell us about how he was transferred to Morocco?
KP: Pakistan, 24th May 2002. He was taken to the airport by car, travelling handcuffed and with a hood on his head. After about half an hour waiting, someone grabbed him abruptly, having come onto him very quietly. He seized his neck with powerful strength, so much so that Kassim thought he was going to die. He was taken to a place that turned out to be a bathroom. Everything happened very fast. Brandishing a knife, they cut his clothes and took them all off. He was then able to see 4 or 5 men all dressed in black, with only the eyes showing, all around him.
They searched him all over, also in the intimate parts, took a picture and quickly put his clothes back on cutting most of his t-shirt off. They put a sort of nappy on him and blindfolded him again. They made him wear what felt like metallic underpants to which they attached chains connected to his handcuffs and to his legs.
They took him to the aeroplane and forced him to lie down on his back; another passenger got on the plane after him. He was forbidden from moving from that position and every movement was punished by being hit, maybe with a stick, maybe with a shoe... he could not tell. Not having realised he had a nappy on, he held his bladder the whole journey with tremendous discomfort. His back was in great pain, when he asked to be allowed to turn they covered his mouth with tape.
While the plane was landing, they managed to swap his metal handcuffs with some plastic ones. After hearing the Moroccan dialect he understood where he had arrived. Some Temara policemen were waiting for him and transported him to the town. The route of this plane was recorded among the documents of the TDIP (European commission for CIA flights): the Gulfstream N379P, known as the "Guantanamo Express", flew on the 24/25 May 2002 from Islamabad to Rabat, took off the same day in the direction of Porto and landed in Washington on May the 26.
CP: To what extent were the Italian secret services involved in the rendition of your husband?
KP: In Morocco my husband was asked about his life in Italy, realising once again how well informed his interrogators were. In addition, I learned from the investigation records that great concern surrounded Kassim’s liberation in Temara, as he could have easily gone back to Italy, being an Italian citizen. My discovery was substantiated by a meeting I had with a prominent person straight after Kassim's trial. The objective of such meeting was to obtain permission to see my husband, who had just been sentenced to 15 years of prison.
CP: How has it changed your opinion of the Italian government- do you think that the co-operation shows that ‘the rules have changed’ since 9/11?
KP: The people currently in power are different from the government operating when Kassim was illegally incarcerated, underwent a rendition and to two secret detentions in Morocco followed by an unjust trial. However, both the parties in charge then and now have basically accepted a change in the rules. Actually, in Italy the press and the TV keep going on about the danger of Islamic terrorist attacks, so many people are really scared of us.
As an Italian citizen, I don’t feel protected by the Italian State. I have been under investigation as well just because I am a Muslim, it is written on the records, and this is a terrible symptom of incivility in a country where religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution.
To this day the Government doesn’t act in the interest of my husband, who is a victim of great and prolonged injustice. Instead it remains silent.
Kassim gets to see some member of the Italian consulate, every now and then, but that’s the treatment they give to all the Italian detainees in Morocco, people involved in drug dealing and the like. The Italian ambassador in Morocco insist that it is not possible to s ask for my husband’s release, he blames it on the situation with the West Sahara, but when the police of the two countries did cooperate, when Kassim had disappeared and Italy knew about it, then they did agree in keeping him illegally and secretly imprisoned!
The MPs and the Head of State do not answer, the newspapers keep quiet, so I created the site www.giustiziperkassim.net to tell people what is really going on. No human being should ever be humiliated the way Kassim, and many others, were. I am hurt, disappointed... it’s a deep pain: my husband has never broken any law, yet he is wasting his life in a prison while here in Italy I often witness of outrageous cases of people who are guilty yet don’t end up in prison...
An Italian citizen who was found guilty of handling fake money and sentenced to 10 years has recently been pardoned by the King of Morocco, about two years later... obviously he had some help from Italy that is denied to Kassim and I think that this is up to the Italian government.
CP: Can you describe the conditions of Témara jail during your husband’s stay?
KP: Since Kassim is still held in Morocco, on this point you can read the specific dossier created by Amnesty International. Temara is not a jail, it’s a place used in order to obtain confessions, statements, forced cooperation... Binyam Mohamed (currently held in Guantanamo) gives a tragic account about Temara...
Kassim’s first detention in Temara (25.05.02-11.02.03) was spent in total isolation. He had to undergo distressing interrogations, during which he was always tied and blindfolded. He was sleep-deprived and kept hearing the screaming of other detainees. Only when they thought he was broken to the point of accepting to work as their collaborator in Italy, the secret services decided to let him go. Kassim realised that because they brought him food and clothes and promised him money and to put an end to his worries, as they would have given a grant to his sister and mother.
The second secret and illegal detention in Temara was extremely harsh. Not only was he given the aforementioned treatment, in fact, much harder because of the political repression occurring in the country, but also his own family was often interrogated in rooms near his. On top of that Kassim was denied a change of clothes, enough water, any soap and the comfort of a copy of the Quran. He was always handcuffed, except for fifteen minutes, for his meal. He was tied even in the toilet.
He was trying hard to keep himself clean for prayer, he was in extreme conditions, in order to clean his teeth he would pull a thread from the only pair of trousers he had...
They let him out of that place only once he signed, like everyone else, a paper he was not allowed to read.
I arrived in Morocco the 28th of September 2003. I went to see him in Salé and I noticed the deep marks of his handcuffs and how thin he had become, even though I could only see him from afar and through a double net. I saw many other incredible and shameful things, like the trial factory, where even three verdicts would be reached on the same day, given out by the same court...
CP: What concerns did you have about the treatment that might have been given to your husband by the Moroccan authorities?
KP: During the time of my husband’s first secret detention, not knowing where he was, I was very worried. I knew something had happened because it had never happened that Kassim had left me without news. But I felt he was alive so I prayed, was patient and never lost hope. The second time he disappeared, on the following days, I was hoping that they would have verified his documents and release him. I was in Morocco so I saw what was going on, the people were very sad and angry because of the attacks and they were also very scared of the brutality displayed by the police.
When the Moroccan authorities told me, at the end of May 2003, that Kassim was not in prison I knew in my heart that it meant he was in Temara and I shouted it out in the Prosecutor’s office in Casablanca. I could sense how bad the climate was around me, I became truly afraid I would never see Kassim again, there were lots of inexplicable deaths among those who were arrested and interrogated. The news was immediately censored by arresting a few journalists and even some solicitors found themselves in trouble for having protested. I wrote several letters to the Moroccan Minister of Justice, in the one date 8 of August I wrote I would have accused the Moroccan state for the death of Abou Elkassim Britel.
About 20 days later, Kassim was moved to the Salé prison, officially detained, with the accusation of “holding unauthorised meetings and participating to subversive association”. This very same accusation was the same for the thousands of people arrested in that period.
CP: Were your fears justified- was your husband subject to anything that you feared he might be?
KP: Since he disappeared the second time, I have started reading the Moroccan newspapers in French in order to try and understand, so I have discovered that taking people, making them disappear and torturing them is a common practice that has always happened. There are activists who disappeared in the seventies, whose place of burial is still not known today. The brutality of the violent interrogations is witnessed by several brave people and it has unfortunately not changed in time.
I knew, therefore, what kind of treatment might be happening to my husband, I feared the torture of the bottle and that they would give him chemicals. The summer of 2003 was very torrid and I would never stop thinking of him, hoping he would not die like that.
I also had a different type of fear, a moral one: when you get such violent and humiliating treatment how is it possible to remain yourself and not be overwhelmed by the desire of revenge?
Alhamdulillah, my husband has been cruelly harmed but he has preserved his balance and his intelligence, his mind is focussed on the future and I am very proud of him.
CP: What means of communication and legal access did your husband have during that time?
KP: No solicitor steps into Temara, never! Because Temara is not a prison and the authorities deny everything about it, but by now too many witnesses have come out and people who have never met agree and relate the same stories.
In 2003, many went to Temara, some for a few days and some for weeks. I think my husband stayed there that long because he was an embarrassing case because the Moroccan authorities themselves when communicating with the Italian police declared they were aware he was not involved with the attacks in the country (like the majority of the people who got arrested) and they had to decide what to do with him.
CP: What details can you give us about the release of your husband and his difficulties in attempting to return to Italy?
KP: Let’s go back to Kassim’s first secret detention, when he understood from his conditions that he was going to be released, during the moth of Ramadan. On Eid day (11.02.2003), in the evening, he was once again blindfolded and put in a car. He was travelling, but did not know his destination. He found himself at his mother’s house.
I spoke to my husband on the phone after 11 months, I was happy! I got ready to leave, took holidays from work and got to Morocco on the 26th of February 2003 and I was back in Italy the 16th of March.
I had left with the idea of going back with Kassim, but I hadn’t realised to what extent he was affected in body and spirit, he was so sick he couldn’t even manage to walk a few metres. I still remember our walks, first so short, in the neighbourhood, and then a bit longer. His sleep was agitated, he was not capable of telling what he had gone through. He was always cold and had many health problems.
On top of that there was this DST clerk who kept phoning him and meeting him outside the house at least once a week. Yes, he had been released without charges, but he had no documents and this guy would not miss any chance to remind him not to speak a word to anyone about what Kassim had gone through and that he had no proof of entry to Morocco and hence he needed them in order to get out because if he had tried to get out by himself he would have definitely been arrested.
I had arrived there with all the NGO addresses, as they are into human rights, and I had spoken to Amnesty in Milan. I was ready to go straight back with him, but he was in no condition to travel and he also thought he would have never been able to go back to Morocco so he felt sorry for his family.
The 18 or 19 of March, my husband went to the Italian embassy in Rabat in order to ask for travelling documents and he told them all about what he had been through. They told him they would have given him an answer. Meanwhile, Kassim asked me to go back to him as he was not well at all and needed me, so I asked for three months of unpaid leave, convinced I had to give him time to recover. I went back to Morocco in the 6th of April 2003.
The DTS kept pressurising him. They asked him to get me to bring one of his brother’s passport and they would have got him out of Morocco (over all the entries and exits must be recorded and if there is no entry it’s a crime, punished with jail.)
Kassim wanted to leave with me, but he still needed time. I was trying to help him to normalise his life. We did some translation work, by hand, with no computer. We went to see his relatives, to the dentist and sometimes we did the shopping - he was slowly recovering. Together, we insisted with the embassy to get them to escort us to the airport, in order to guarantee our departure, we did so several times, but they totally refused, they kept saying they couldn’t, “we are guests, this is not our country”. In the end, after giving it a lot of thought, Kassim notified the embassy that he would have crossed the frontier in Melilla.
Kassim and I decided we would have travelled by plane, I already had the ticket, we are not rich and throwing that away felt like a waste, especially considering that I was on unpaid leave.
On 12th May 2003 the embassy gave him his travelling documents to go back to Italy and refused once more to comply with his request of being escorted to the airport.
He left by bus, heading towards the north of Morocco and on 16th May, around 1 pm, before the terrorist attacks took place late that evening, he was stopped in Bab Melilla and disappeared again.
CP: What level of involvement did the national and international media have in the case of your husband by that stage? What was the stance of the media towards your husband?
KP: The Italian media were particularly negative regarding my husband; by May 2003 they had even arrived at the conclusion that he was the leader of a group, or one of the suicide bombers who attacked Casablanca! Something that nobody ever accused him of in Morocco!
Since 2006, despite the prominent involvement of the Parliament Commission on CIA flights (TDID), the newspapers are silent - with the exception of an important report by Claudio Gatti for the prestigious newspaper “Il Sole 24 Ore”, on the 30th of May 2007, just before Bush visited Italy. The enquiry related the actions of ACLU towards the company that catered for the logistic support needed for the rendition, and it also told Kassim’s story. This article was also published by the International Herald Tribune and by El Pais, while the other Italian newspapers ignored it, even though my husband is the only Italian citizen known to be a victim of rendition. As for the local newspaper, I have already told you about them.
The story is accurately followed by a newspaper called Carta, while one named Diario, that published two articles, today is no longer in the shops. All the material published on the matter can be found on my site at the page www.alternainsieme.net, dedicated to Kassim. Radio Popolare in Milan also follows the story and has broadcasted several programmes about it, one called Guantanamo Express, that can be found on www.giustiziaperkassim.net. On it you can also listen to Kassim’s voice.
There are several sites and blogs that talk about his story, I remember Quibla.net Statewatch.org, Tlaxcala.es, Cronique de Guantanamo, but there are others, like Cageprisoners that also talks about the articles published in the USA.
CP: How did you find out that your husband had been detained again? What was your reaction to the news?
KP: On the 4th of June 2003 I got back to Italy, Kassim had disappeared again and I thought I could have helped him better from here. In Morocco both his family and I had reported to the police that he had gone missing. On the 18th of September 2003 my sister-in-law went to ask about Kassim and was told he had just entered Salé prison.
CP: What has been the result of criminal investigations into your husband in Italy?
KP: My husband was investigated in 2001; he had just left when they searched our house. After a while I learnt I was also under investigation. During the following years our solicitor asked several times for our files to be archived as there was absolutely no reason to keep it open. I thought that if the case was archived it would have been useful for the appeal in Morocco. I will never forget that just before the appeal the magistrate turned down my request because he said he had to go on holiday. But they never did it in 2004.
In September 2006, thanks to the involvement of the TDIP Commission in Abou Elkassim Brite case, finally the Italian magistrates archive the case “considering that the latest enquiries, the phone conversations and the bank evidence do not support the accusations”. There was therefore no request for further enquiries.
CP: What was your husband charged with and what did you make of these charges?
KP: In Morocco the accusation was “holding unauthorised meetings and subversive association”, but Kassim was tried all by himself and there was no mention of Morocco, it was all about his life in Italy. The Italian investigation was about subversive association.
Continue reading the interview with Khadija Pighizzni