“I have a problem. It’s a bit of a political thing,” De Sousa remembers explaining to her mom three years ago, as they sat in the family’s cliffside villa, with views of the ocean, in Goa. “There was an incident in Italy. It involved what the Italians consider a crime.”
Her mother, Julia De Sousa, asked: “What kind of crime?”
“It was kidnapping” the daughter said. “Don’t worry. I am not a criminal.”
Her mother, then 82, looked perplexed. She placed her hand on her daughter’s knee and asked: “How did it come to this?”
Expectation of protection
At 56, Sabrina De Sousa’s life has come to be defined by a landmark criminal case that has been playing out in Italy for much of the past decade, ever since prosecutors began investigating the disappearance of an Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar.
Their conclusion in 2005: A sprawling cast of CIA operatives and senior Italian intelligence officials were the culprits. In a startling turn of events, a foreign country — an ally, no less — had charged a group of U.S. officials for the practice of rendition, in which a terrorist suspect is flown against his will to another country for interrogation.
In 2009, 23 Americans — nearly all alleged CIA officers, many using aliases, all of them long gone from Italy — were convicted in an Italian court on charges of aggravated kidnapping. Most were sentenced to several years in prison. None has ever been extradited to Italy.
Among those charged, one name stands out: De Sousa, a D.C. resident who Italian prosecutors say helped orchestrate the kidnapping but did not actually participate. De Sousa insists that she played no role in the rendition. Unlike the other Americans caught up in the case, she refuses to retreat into anonymity.
This week, De Sousa faces what could be her final chance at exoneration. On Friday, the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome will convene a two-day hearing to decide whether to uphold or overturn all the Americans’ convictions. The judges could also kick their cases back to a lower court or schedule another hearing before a fuller panel of Supreme Court justices in the fall.
De Sousa, who was registered in Italy as a State Department officer at the U.S. consulate in Milan, denies that she worked for the CIA, even as she has sued the agency for failing to invoke diplomatic immunity on her behalf. In Italian court papers, prosecutors call De Sousa a “CIA agent attached to the U.S. Consulate in Milan.” The CIA declined to comment on the specifics of her case.