MILAN, ITALY — As President Bush headed for Italy on Friday, a Milan court opened the trial of a group of CIA agents accused of kidnapping a radical Egyptian cleric -- the first legal prosecution of one of the administration's most controversial counter-terrorism tactics.
Twenty-six American defendants, including two CIA station chiefs and an Air Force colonel, are being tried in absentia in the 2003 abduction from a Milan sidewalk of the cleric known as Abu Omar.
The tactic under scrutiny in the case is called extraordinary rendition. It involves the capture of a terrorism suspect in one country and his transfer not to the U.S. but to a third for interrogation, without court orders or judicial oversight. In many cases, including this one, the suspects have said they were tortured. Human rights officials accuse the Bush administration of using scores of extraordinary renditions to "outsource" torture, an allegation Washington denies.
The 26 Americans left Italy before the first arrest warrants were issued two years ago, and none is expected to cooperate with the Milan proceedings.
This gave a sort of virtualreality feel to Friday's court session.
Judge Oscar Magi opened the trial, reading the indictment and ticking off the Americans' names, repeating 26 times: "Fugitive."
Court-appointed defense attorneys for each of the American defendants filled the courtroom, but the metal cages along the walls that usually contain suspects were empty. Most of the defense attorneys have never met or communicated with their clients, and in many cases don't even know their real names. (The agents allegedly used aliases in the Abu Omar operation.)
Seven Italians are also charged, including the country's former top spymaster and his No. 2, who are accused of sanctioning or aiding in the kidnap.
The Milan prosecution, along with similar cases in Germany and Switzerland, exposed the policy of renditions, which Bush was eventually forced to acknowledge. Only in Italy, however, has such a case gone to trial, a public forum that threatens to further illuminate the actions of CIA operatives and the long-denied complicity of their European counterparts.
"We want to punish terrorists -- but in the courtroom," Milan's lead prosecutor, Armando Spataro, said in commenting on the significance of the landmark trial. The war on terrorism, he said, should be waged "within the full respect of the laws of our Western democracies."
In an uncomfortable coincidence for American officials that highlighted the ongoing strain in U.S.-Italian relations, the trial started just hours before Bush arrived in Italy for a day-and-a-half visit following the Group of 8 summit in Germany.
Also Friday, a new European watchdog report documented the existence of secret CIA prisons in Poland and Romania where terrorism suspects were allegedly subjected to harsh treatment. It was the latest in a series of revelations exposing widely criticized aspects of Washington's counter-terrorism campaign.
Inside a cavernous marble building that serves as Milan's main courthouse, the trial was adjourned until June 18 while Judge Magi decides whether to suspend the proceedings pending a constitutional challenge to the case.
The Italian government has asked the constitutional court, the highest in the land, to void the indictments because of concern that prosecutors will use state secrets to make their case. A challenge initiated by the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, a loyal Bush ally, has been continued by the center-left government of his successor, Prime Minister Romano Prodi. The two governments apparently shared a fear that courtroom exposure would embarrass Italy's intelligence agencies and lay bare their practices, including secret wiretaps against the defendants.
"It is in our interest to have a fast trial," defense attorney Titta Madia said, "but it is also important to understand what evidence can be used and what cannot be used."
Madia represents Nicolo Pollari, the former head of Italy's military intelligence and the highest-ranking Italian defendant. Pollari, who was not in court Friday, has argued that national security shields his actions; he says he knew about, but did not condone, the abduction of Abu Omar.
The trial dealt mostly with procedural matters, including a defense motion to disallow papers filed on Abu Omar's behalf because of questions over their authenticity. The motion was denied.
Judge Magi also allowed Abu Omar and his wife, Nabila Ghali, to be listed as injured parties in the case, which allows their lawyers to question witnesses with the prosecution.
Abu Omar, whose full name is Hassan Osama Nasr, remains in Egypt, where he spent more than three years in prison after CIA operatives allegedly abducted him and flew him to Cairo on a private plane that took off from the U.S.-run part of Aviano Air Base in northern Italy.