Italy’s highest court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of 23 Americans — nearly all current or former CIA officers — for playing roles in the kidnapping of an Egyptian terrorism suspect in 2003. The Americans face prison sentences ranging from seven to nine years, but they were tried in absentia and are highly unlikely to be extradited.
The marathon Italian prosecution has strained relations between the United States and Italy, exposed tradecraft errors behind a CIA operation and raised questions about which U.S. officials abroad are eligible for diplomatic immunity.
The legal case is also significant because a Western ally convicted U.S. government officials for the practice of “rendition,” in which a terrorism suspect is flown against his will to another country for interrogation.
Among the convicted Americans are two Washingtonians: Sabrina De Sousa, a former CIA operative, and Col. Joseph L. Romano III, a retired Air Force commander who works at the Pentagon.
The landmark case dates to Feb. 17, 2003, when Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar, walked out of his Milan apartment in broad daylight and vanished. Italian authorities used cellphone records made at the time and location of the abduction to determine that CIA officers snatched Abu Omar, drove him to nearby Aviano Air Base and flew him to Egypt. According to Italian court documents, Abu Omar was beaten and subjected to electric shock in a Cairo prison. He was later freed.
Armando Spataro, the Italian public prosecutor who brought the case, said he pursued the Americans because he believes that renditions violate international law. In court papers, Italian investigators say De Sousa was a “CIA agent” who helped plan the kidnapping. De Sousa, who denies having been in the CIA and says she was a State Department consular official, said she played no role in the abduction and was chaperoning her son’s ski trip on the day Abu Omar was taken. Romano, accused of helping secrete the kidnappers and Abu Omar at Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy, has declined to comment on his role.
De Sousa, Romano and the other convicted Americans never received diplomatic or military immunity. U.S. officials asserted immunity for Romano under NATO’s Status of Forces Agreement, but the Italians disregarded it. De Sousa sued the CIA and the State and Justice departments in federal court, seeking to force the government to give her immunity, but she lost her case. She is appealing.
The CIA declined to comment. Pentagon spokesman George Little also declined to comment.
De Sousa said that the evidence against her was highly circumstantial and that senior U.S. government officials who planned the rendition deserve to be held accountable. Romano said the Italian Supreme Court’s ruling surprised him because prosecutors had asked the judges to drop the charges against him, saying he deserved NATO immunity.
“I am not angry, I am just disappointed. I am saddened,” Romano said Wednesday. “The government of Italy violated [my immunity.] I believe their courts have lost their legitimacy.”
In an interview Wednesday, Spataro applauded the court ruling and said NATO immunity does not protect those who participate in kidnappings.