ROME — An Italian court has issued European arrest warrants for 22 CIA operatives accused of kidnapping a radical imam in Milan in 2003, expanding the dragnet for the suspects to 25 countries, a prosecutor said Friday.
The abduction is one of several cases causing a furor in Europe these days in which U.S. intelligence agencies are suspected of using European soil and airspace to imprison or to transport terrorism suspects to third countries without judicial authorization. These so-called extraordinary renditions are one of the most controversial elements of the Bush administration's efforts to fight terrorism.
In the Italian case, the 22 CIA operatives, including the Milan station chief, are accused of snatching Hassan Osama Nasr as he walked to a mosque in Milan nearly three years ago. He was spirited away on a secret flight to his native Egypt, where he was imprisoned and, he later told friends, tortured.
Italian prosecutors have been trying to bring the operatives to trial since June, when they first obtained arrest warrants for some of the suspects. Those warrants, however, applied only to Italy. Lead prosecutor Armando Spataro said Friday that a court this week had issued the European arrest warrants, which means that the suspects can now be arrested in any of the European Union's 25 member states.
The Italian Justice Ministry has refused to act on a Nov. 10 request from Spataro's office for the extradition from the U.S. of the men and women suspected of kidnapping the cleric, better known as Abu Omar. Under bilateral conventions, an extradition request for a U.S. citizen must go through the Justice Ministry. But Justice Minister Roberto Castelli answers to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has made it clear he does not want the case to advance.
The matter has been especially embarrassing for Berlusconi, who enthusiastically supports Bush administration policies but has had to publicly deny Italian involvement in the abduction -- even as CIA officers in the U.S. told newspapers they were acting with Italian permission.
Berlusconi said this week that although he did not believe the CIA had kidnapped Abu Omar, he thought such an operation was completely justifiable.
"You can't tackle terrorism with a law book in your hand," Berlusconi said.
"If they fight with a sword, you have to defend yourself with a sword.... When hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk, countries have to use the secret methods and arms available to them to defend those lives."
Berlusconi was speaking to a group of foreign journalists that did not include representatives of U.S. newspapers. He said he did not think there was "any basis in the [Milan] case."
Prosecutor Spataro has also asked that Interpol be instructed to arrest the CIA operatives in non-European countries. In a telephone interview from Milan, he said that no action had been taken yet on that request, which also has to pass through the Justice Ministry.
The Europe-wide arrest warrant was created after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, designed as a way to better apprehend terrorism suspects who cross European borders with ease. Law enforcement agencies in member countries are generally obliged to detain and hand over people named in the warrants.
The attorney for the former Milan station chief downplayed the significance of the new warrants. Daria Pesce said her client, Robert Seldon Lady, was already taking precautions to avoid arrest on foreign soil. "He is a U.S. citizen, and he is in the U.S.," she said by telephone from Milan.
Lady is seeking to extricate himself from criminal proceedings by claiming diplomatic immunity. An Italian judge turned down his request late last month, saying that Lady had lost his immunity when he retired and that such serious crimes did not merit immunity. But Pesce said she planned to appeal the decision.
Lady owns a retirement home in northern Italy, but he left the country before initial arrest warrants were issued in June and has apparently not returned. There is no indication that any of the other accused operatives are in Europe either. Two of the covert CIA agents were reassigned to embassies in Africa and Latin America, but it is not known whether they remain there.
Italian prosecutors believe their case is particularly strong because the suspected kidnap team left behind a treasure trove of information, including credit card receipts and copies of passports. Its members spoke freely on many cellular telephones, calls Italian law enforcement officials were able to track and use to reconstruct the agents' movements before, during and after the alleged abduction.
The abrupt disappearance of Abu Omar angered prosecutors and anti-terrorism police in Milan, all of whom work independently of Berlusconi's central government, because the cleric was key to a case they were building against terrorist networks active in Italy. They suspected Abu Omar of recruiting suicide bombers for Iraq.