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Details emerge in cleric's abduction

A hearing offers a closer look at the alleged `rendition,' as an Italian court considers whether to try CIA agents.

January 10, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MILAN, ITALY — On an early autumn day more than four years ago, the CIA station chief in Rome allegedly presented Italy's top spymaster with a list of people he described as prime targets in the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

The CIA wanted the targets "taken away," in the words of one Italian official.

At the top of the list of about 10 names was a radical Egyptian cleric widely known as Abu Omar. Within months, Abu Omar was abducted, allegedly by CIA operatives, as he walked along a Milan sidewalk. He was secretly flown to an Egyptian jail, where he says he was tortured and where he remains to this day.

The Abu Omar case has provided the most detailed look yet at a highly controversial practice in the U.S. government's anti-terrorism arsenal: "extraordinary renditions," the capture of suspects without court order and their transport to clandestine prisons in countries with dubious human rights records.

Additional exposure of the practice, which has been used in Europe on a scale much larger than initially acknowledged, came Tuesday when a court in Milan began deliberating whether to order the trial of 26 Americans and nine Italians implicated in the February 2003 abduction of Omar.

Judge Caterina Interlandi heard opening arguments in a well-guarded courtroom closed to journalists and the public. Lawyers for the American and Italian defendants attempted to halt the proceedings on constitutional grounds but failed.

A decision on whether to hold what would be the first trial involving renditions could come as early as next month. The Italian government also may demand the extradition of the accused Americans, including an Air Force colonel and 25 CIA operatives, among them the former station chiefs of Rome and Milan. All are fugitives.

Nicolo Pollari, the man who was Italy's top spy until he was fired late last year, also is a defendant. A trial would cast light on some of most secretive agreements and tactics shared by European and American spies.

Abu Omar was caught up in what European investigators called a global web of renditions that might have snared hundreds of people. Though the details of his abduction have been well publicized, new information was revealed as prosecutors prepared the case that went before Interlandi on Tuesday.

Italian prosecutors say documents, testimony and telephone wiretaps clearly demonstrate that Italian agents collaborated with the CIA in activities they knew to be illegal.

Luciano Pironi, a senior officer from the paramilitary carabinieri police force, has confessed to helping kidnap Abu Omar. The cleric, whose full name is Hassan Osama Nasr, lived in Italy with political refugee status, although he was under investigation for alleged terrorism-related activities. Pironi told prosecutors that he lured Abu Omar to a van by asking him to show his identity papers.

Kidnappers hustled Abu Omar into the vehicle and whisked him away to the U.S.-run side of Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, for a flight to Egypt. Pironi's presence was detected when his cellphone was tracked to the street where Abu Omar was picked up on the date he disappeared.

Pironi testified that the CIA station chief in Milan, the now-retired Robert Seldon Lady, assured him the operation had "cover" and would not be questioned, prosecutors say.

Some of the most damning statements came from Gen. Gustavo Pignero, a former senior official in SISMI, Italy's military intelligence service headed by Pollari. Pignero said Pollari was visited in late 2002 by the CIA station chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli, who allegedly gave Pollari the names of people the CIA wanted captured.

Pignero, who has since died, recalled passing Castelli in the corridor outside Pollari's office. Pollari then gave the list to Pignero and indicated that the CIA wanted priority given to Abu Omar.

"The director [Pollari] explained to me that the Americans were pursuing a strategy of 'search and offensive capture' of terrorists," Pignero said. "It was clear that we were dealing with a plan for aggressive searches, and it was clear that the project envisioned the capture of terrorists, and of Abu Omar in particular, with procedures that were outside the law."

Pignero made his statement during several hours of interrogation while under house arrest last year. He maintained that both he and Pollari were opposed to the kidnapping, but prosecutors believe they cooperated nonetheless. Pignero acknowledged helping to document Abu Omar's movements, information that prosecutors contend was supplied to the CIA operatives.

"I told Castelli, 'Don't worry, you will have the maximum collaboration,' " Pignero said.

Pignero died last autumn, but his statements, contained in warrants and other documents made available to The Times, will be entered as evidence in any eventual trial, prosecutors say. Pignero allegedly destroyed the CIA hit list in 2005, when the investigation intensified, a source close to the case said.

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