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Italy Orders Arrest of 13 CIA Operatives

Prosecutors accuse the Americans of taking part in a kidnapping: the 'extraordinary rendition' of a terrorism suspect to Egypt.

June 25, 2005|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MILAN, Italy — An Italian judge has ordered the arrest of a group of CIA operatives who investigators believe kidnapped a radical Egyptian imam from the streets of Milan and bundled him off to Cairo, where he said he was tortured.

As part of the inquiry, Italian police Thursday night raided the Italian home of an American man identified in arrest warrants as the former CIA station chief here and confiscated a computer, disks and documents, judicial sources said.

The warrants name 13 American operatives from a group of 19 men and women who authorities here believe pursued and then snatched Hassan Osama Nasr, a radical cleric better known as Abu Omar, nearly 2 1/2 years ago. Officials, who announced Friday that warrants had been issued, said none of the operatives were in Italy any longer and that no one was taken into custody.

The Abu Omar case appears to be an example of an "extraordinary rendition," a controversial practice employed by U.S. authorities against suspected terrorists with increasing frequency since the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. counter-terrorism operatives seize and transport a suspect in one foreign country to another without seeking court permission. Human rights organizations say treatment of the suspect in the destination country can be brutal.

Italy is one of three European countries, along with Sweden and Germany, that are examining alleged renditions on their soil. It is rare for a country friendly to the United States to attempt to prosecute its secret agents.

The suspected agents were identified, with names and addresses, through cellular phone records and hotel and rental car receipts amassed from the weeks they were in Milan preparing and executing the operation, three officials said in interviews during the last several days.

"We will be asking for judicial assistance from both Egyptian and

Another leading prosecutor, Armando Spataro, opened the Italian investigation this year and sought and secured the arrest warrants. "I think it's nearly impossible to arrest anyone," Spataro said in an interview. "The important thing is to get to the truth."

He said he hoped to be able to ask for the extradition of the operatives and to take depositions from witnesses in the U.S.

It was not clear to what extent the U.S. operation was approved by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch ally, Italian sources said. But the Italian judiciary frequently acts independently, and government approval of the operation would not necessarily have stopped prosecutors from pursuing the case.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome and the State Department declined to comment on the case Friday. Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, said the government would not comment in the future on any aspect of the case. The CIA has defended extraordinary renditions, saying it receives assurances from the destination countries that the suspects will be treated well.

Several U.S. officials said the case was extraordinarily sensitive, given Washington's close working relationship with Italy on many issues. One former U.S. intelligence official said that the prospect of Italy issuing arrest warrants had been discussed privately within the CIA for months, and that agency officials in Italy were told six months ago to clear out in anticipation of possible legal action.

A current U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Italian warrants would probably be considered valid by Europol, the European Union police agency, meaning that the operatives could be arrested anywhere on the continent.

"We have a very solid case," a senior Italian justice official said.

"I realize this won't change U.S. policy, but it will be embarrassing, at the least," said another Italian law enforcement official familiar with the case.

Details of the Abu Omar case were first reported in the Los Angeles Times on March 3. Spataro requested arrest warrants March 22, and Judge Chiara Nobile issued them late Thursday.

The abduction of Abu Omar forced Italian authorities to abort an extensive case they were building against him. His arrest had been imminent, they said, and formal charges against him are pending.

Italian authorities suspected Abu Omar of helping to build a terrorist network in Europe, of recruiting volunteers to fight in Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion and of possibly plotting a bombing. He was a veteran of wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan and was using his pulpit in Milan to raise money in the name of jihad, or holy war, Italian officials said, citing information from wiretaps, including one at a mosque where he preached.

According to court papers, he was recorded in numerous conversations with other terrorism suspects who have since been prosecuted. In one, he is heard praising a man later accused of recruiting suicide bombers for his success in reaching out to "the youth."

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