Two Tunisians who had been detained at Guantanamo arrived in Italy late Monday and will be tried on international terrorism charges for having allegedly recruited fighters for Afghanistan, officials said.
Adel Ben Mabrouk, 39, and Mohamed Ben Riadh Nasri, 43, are suspected of being members of a terror group with ties to al-Qaida. They were immediately taken into custody upon arrival in Milan and will be interrogated, a prosecutor told The Associated Press.
Italy took in the Tunisians as a "concrete political sign" of Italy's commitment to help the U.S. close Guantanamo, Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said in a statement.
Several European countries have taken in a handful of Guantanamo detainees in recent months. In September, two Uzbeks were sent to Ireland, and recently two Syrians arrived in Portugal. But they were freed. In this case, Italian magistrates had previously accused the Tunisians of international terrorism stemming from crimes allegedly committed as far back as 1997 and they arrived in Italy already in custody.
The Italian prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mabrouk and Nasri traveled from Italy to Afghanistan and, once there, maintained a "functional relationship inside the organization" of Tunisians here to recruit fighters for suicide missions.
Nasri was allegedly the head of the organization and was described by the U.S. military as a "dangerous" Tunisian operative when he appeared before a U.S. military review panel.
Fate of dozens unclear
President Barack Obama confirmed last month that he would miss his January deadline to close the Guantanamo prison — partly because he cannot persuade other nations to take the detainees.
The U.S. administration says about 90 of the 215 men now held at the U.S. military base can be released or repatriated. But Washington still has to figure out where it will try 40 to 60 prisoners suspected of terrorism and where to relocate dozens more it wants to continue to holding without charge because it lacks the evidence to try them but fears their release.
The slow pace of transfers has disappointed human rights groups who had hoped Obama would follow through with his promise to close the prison.
Italy had indicated it would accept three Tunisians; the prosecutor said he didn't know if and when the third would arrive.
The U.S. alleged that Nasri traveled to Afghanistan, via Italy and Pakistan, and trained at an al-Qaida-linked camp. He fled from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, when it fell to the Northern Alliance and was injured in the U.S. bombing of the Tora Bora area, where he was captured and turned over to American forces.
Convicted in Italy
Nasri also had alleged links to Muslim fighters in Bosnia as well as Algerian militants, officials said in documents released after he appeared at the military panel. He was also previously convicted in Italy for passing counterfeit money, and was convicted in Tunisia of being a member of a terrorist organization and sentenced to 10 years, the documents said.
He told the U.S. military that he did not belong to a Tunisian Islamist group, much less head one, and denies ever trying to overthrow the Tunisian government.
In Italy, Nasri, also known as Abou Doujana, is accused along with eight other people of criminal association, aiding illegal immigration and terrorism charges stemming from 1997-2001, the ANSA news agency reported.
Mabrouk had been held without charge at Guantanamo since February 2002.
Alleged al-Qaida links
He lived in Italy before traveling to Afghanistan in early 2001, according to the transcript of his hearing before the U.S. military panel that reviewed his case. U.S. authorities alleged he had links to al-Qaida and trained at one its camps. The U.S. also alleged he had previously associated with extremists in Bosnia and had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in Tunisia for being a member of a terrorist organization.
The ANSA news agency, citing the 2007 Italian arrest warrant against him, said Nasri was accused of organizing in Afghanistan the logistics for fighters coming from Italy to be trained in camps "where they were trained in the use of weapons and in preparation for suicide attacks." For those who survived, he oversaw financial arrangements to resettle them back in the West, the indictment said.
Nasri was described as the head of the Tunisians in Afghanistan "from where he maintained constant relations with the structures in Italy and Milan," the indictment read.
Mabrouk's 2005 arrest warrant in Italy accuses him of international terrorism, falsification of documents, aiding illegal immigration, theft and drug trafficking. He is alleged to have been part of a group affiliated with Milan's mosque that provided logistical and financial support for recruiting fighters for Iraq, ANSA reported.
The prosecutor said both men were members of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, also known as al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, since forging ties with Osama bin Laden's terror network.
Mabrouk was captured on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by Pakistani forces and turned over to the U.S.
He told the U.S. military panel that he only went to Afghanistan as an immigrant and did receive some weapons training but denied ever being in Bosnia or knowing about any prison sentence in Tunisia, according to U.S. military documents.
Jon Fee, a Washington-based attorney who represented Mabrouk, declined to comment on his transfer to Italy.