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Judge in Italy convicts 23 Americans in 2003 CIA kidnapping of Egyptian cleric

The Americans were tried in absentia and likely will not spend any time in an Italian prison. The trial shed light on the secret world of CIA renditions of terrorism suspects.

November 05, 2009|Maria De Cristofaro and Sebastian Rotella

ROME AND WASHINGTON — An Italian judge on Wednesday convicted 23 Americans of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan in 2003, a sweeping verdict against one of the CIA's most valued anti-terrorism tools -- the practice known as extraordinary rendition.

The decision was a victory for Italian anti-terrorism prosecutors and police who spent six years building a massive case. The two-year trial exposed details of a secretive world and was the first anywhere to challenge the program under which the CIA abducted suspects and spirited them to other countries for interrogation.

A clandestine team of U.S. and Italian operatives abducted Hassan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, a Muslim cleric suspected of recruiting militants to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was flown to Egypt, where he claims to have undergone months of torture and abuse.

The case sparked an international uproar, and the governments of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor tried repeatedly to scuttle the trial.

"I think it is very important for everyone that this trial was completed," said Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor, adding: "The message of this important ruling -- to nations, governments, institutions, secret services, etc. -- is that we cannot use illegal instruments in our effort against terrorism. Our democracies, otherwise, would betray their principles."

Judge Oscar Magi acquitted three other Americans, including the former CIA station chief in Italy, because they had diplomatic immunity. Magi also set aside charges against five Italian intelligence officials, including the former chief and deputy chief of Italy's spy agency, ruling they were protected by a state secrets law. But he convicted two other Italians.

The Americans were tried in absentia. Given that the U.S. government has declined to cooperate with the prosecution, it seems unlikely that any will spend time in an Italian prison. However, the convicted Americans may be at risk if they travel to Europe. Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants that can be executed in any of the European Union's 27 countries.

The judge issued an eight-year prison sentence for Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan. Testimony indicated that Lady initially opposed abducting Abu Omar as unnecessary and dangerous, but ultimately became the ground-level architect of the operation. The other U.S. operatives were given five-year sentences, and the Italians received three-year terms.

With the help of Lady, Italian police had already been investigating Abu Omar. But Lady was alleged to have orchestrated the kidnapping without their knowledge. The operation on the streets of a closely allied nation caused bad blood among U.S. and Italian anti-terrorism officials and within anti-terrorism agencies in both countries, according to testimony.

Italian intelligence officials testified that then-CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli in Rome and other officials pushed for the rendition, possibly hoping to recruit Abu Omar as an informant. The CIA deployed a paramilitary squad, aided by Italian agents, that stalked the cleric for weeks before snatching him and rushing him to the U.S. military base at Aviano, where he was flown to Egypt via Germany.

In a wiretapped phone call to his wife and later in public statements, the Egyptian alleged that his country's security forces had tortured him and locked him in a rat-infested cell. Egyptian authorities eventually released him but did not allow him to return to Italy to testify.

Probably because they had clearance from Italian spies, the U.S. operatives left a trail of cellphone calls, credit card charges and photo ID documents. The evidence enabled an elite anti-terrorism unit of the Italian police to assemble a detailed case that became an anatomy of a rendition.

"The Milan court sent a powerful message: The CIA can't just abduct people off the streets," said Joanne Mariner, terrorism program director at Human Rights Watch. "It's illegal, unacceptable and unjustified."

The George W. Bush administration aggressively expanded an existing rendition program. Rights advocates believe U.S. agents handed suspects over to countries including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Libya and Syria.

The exact number of people is unknown. In a 2007 speech, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden said that fewer than 100 people had been targets of the program since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Obama administration has cracked down on what it calls abusive tactics, moving to shut down the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; end secret detentions; and investigate harsh interrogation methods.

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