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Italy's high court rules against prosecutors in CIA 'rendition' case

The prosecution says the finding that it broke state secrecy laws won't deter its case against 26 Americans accused in the abduction of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar.

March 13, 2009|Sebastian Rotella and Maria De Cristofaro

PARIS AND ROME — Italian prosecutors insisted Thursday that they would continue to pursue a high-stakes case against U.S. and Italian intelligence agents despite a high court ruling that the prosecution broke state secrecy laws while investigating the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian extremist in Milan.

The ruling Wednesday by the 15-judge Constitutional Court, Italy's highest, gave a partial victory to the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The government has tried to block the trial of 26 Americans and seven Italians accused in the abduction of Abu Omar, a Milan imam who was flown to Egypt, allegedly at the behest of the CIA, where he says he was tortured.

In its ruling, the court appeared to exclude evidence from an Italian military police officer that was "fundamental" to the prosecution's case, said Alessia Sorgato, a lawyer defending some of the U.S. agents being tried in absentia.

The court also found that prosecutors should not have used classified documents found in the search of a headquarters of an operative of the SISMI, Italy's military intelligence service. But Sorgato said that evidence centered on the Italian defendants, making it possible that the trial of the Americans could continue.

Prosecutors in Milan said Thursday that the ruling did not substantively harm their case, the most dramatic prosecution to date involving the U.S. practice of "extraordinary rendition," in which terrorism suspects are secretly transferred to third countries. The high court rejected the government's attempt to quash evidence obtained through wiretaps and interrogations of Italian intelligence officials, prosecutors said in a statement.

"Whoever thinks this trial is over is mistaken," lead prosecutor Armando Spataro said in a telephone interview.

More than half the trial had been completed last fall before it was suspended by the government's appeal to the Constitutional Court. Testimony is to resume Wednesday.

Prosecutor Ferdinando Pomarici said the ruling would "not stop the regular course of the trial" because the documents and evidence barred on the grounds of state secrecy were of little value or could be introduced by other means.

Meanwhile, a government lawyer predicted prosecutors would have to come up with new evidence and new charges.

"The government was interested in the recognition of the existence of the state secret," said the lawyer, Francesco Caramazza. "In the criminal case, the government is neutral, having always denied any role in the kidnap."

Testimony so far has depicted a well-organized, brazen operation by the CIA, assisted by SISMI agents, in which plainclothes agents snatched Abu Omar, whose real name is Hassan Osama Nasr, off a street in broad daylight. Italian intelligence chiefs then allegedly attempted a cover-up, even paying journalists to help them spy on the prosecutors.

Analysts think the trial of the Americans will continue because much of the evidence was collected by Italian police who reconstructed the defendants' movements through their use of credit cards, cellphones and identification documents.

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rotella@latimes.com

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