Italian court sentences 23 CIA agents over rendition flight

By Richard Owen in Rome

November 04, 2009 "
The Times" -- An Italian court sentenced 23 former CIA agents to up to eight years in prison today for their role in the abduction of an Egyptian terrorist suspect in the first trial over “extraordinary renditions”.

The Americans were all tried in absentia, but the verdicts were nevertheless hailed by human rights campaigners as an important victory that could open the way to further prosecutions. Two lower-ranking agents of the Italian military agency SISMI were sentenced to three years each.

None of the convicted CIA agents is in Italy, and successive Italian governments have refused to ask for their extradition.

Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA station chief in Milan, was given an eight-year sentence while 22 other agents received five years each. Classed under Italian law as “fugitives”, all were represented by Italian lawyers who had little or no contact with their clients.

Citing diplomatic immunity, Oscar Magi, the presiding judge, acquitted three other Americans as well as five Italian defendants who could not be judged because the Italian state had withheld evidence which it maintained was classified information.

They include General Niccolo Pollari, former head of SISMI, and his deputy Marco Mancini. The trial, which opened in June 2007, is the first in the world over the abduction of terror suspects during the Bush era by the CIA and its proxies and their subsequent “rendition flights” to third countries which permit or turn a blind eye to torture.

Abu Omar, an imam and militant Islamist whose real name is Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, was seized on a Milan street in February 2003. He was taken to the US air force base at Aviano in northeastern Italy, then flown to the US base at Ramstein in Germany, and eventually to Cairo. He claims he was tortured.

He was released after four years in prison without being charged, and now lives in Egypt. He told Human Rights Watch in 2007 that he had been “hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks” during his interrogations. “I was brutally tortured and I could hear the screams of others who were tortured too,” he said.

The CIA agents left numerous traces of the operation, including the use of credit cards and mobile phones. Prosecutors say the lack of precautions suggests they believed they were operating with the sanction of the Italian authorities.

The prosecution also charged that the kidnapping of Abu Omar was a violation of Italian sovereignty which had compromised Italian security. Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, has denied all knowledge of the kidnapping.

General Pollari has aleady stepped down as head of SISMI over the affair. Armando Spataro, the prosecutor, had asked for a 13-year sentence for Mr Pollari and 12 years for Mr Lady.

The trial was held up after the Italian Government sought to have it shelved on grounds of national security. However, Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled that it could go ahead, while agreeing that some evidence was inadmissible because it involved state secrets.

Lawyers for Abu Omar have demanded €10 million in damages. The court awarded him €1 million, and €500,000 for his wife.

At the time of his abduction, Abu Omar was under surveillance by the Italian authorities on suspicion of recruiting Islamic extremists to send to Iraq, and was noted for advocacy of violence in his sermons at his mosque.

In June Lady spoke to Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Mr Berlusconi’s brother Paolo, about the affair. “Of course it was an illegal operation. But that’s our job. We’re in a war against terrorism,” he said.

He added: “I am not guilty. I am only responsible for following an order I received from my superiors. It was not a criminal act, it was an affair of state.”

Joanna Mariner of Human Rights Watch said that the case had put the war on terror on trial. She added: “There should be dozens of CIA rendition cases in the US courts, but unfortunately there are none. By meticulously investigating the facts and surmounting formidable obstacles, Italian prosecutors have set an example that US prosecutors should follow.”


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