By COLLEEN BARRY
The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 9, 2007; 3:29 PM
MILAN, Italy -- A lawyer for a former CIA station chief accused of involvement in the alleged kidnapping of an Egyptian terror suspect withdrew from the case Tuesday, saying statements by Italian spymasters implicating U.S. agents had undermined her attempts to head off a criminal trial.
Daria Pesce, representing former Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, walked out of court as a judge began hearing arguments on whether to indict 26 Americans and five Italian intelligence officials on criminal charges.
A trial would be the first criminal prosecution involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, in which terror suspects are secretly transferred to third countries where critics say they may face torture.
No decision on indictments was made Tuesday and further hearings were set for Jan. 29 into mid-February.
"Robert Seldon Lady says that this case should have had a political solution and not a judicial solution," Pesce said. "The Italian government could have decided it was a state secret _ remember, this was a terror suspect. It would have been possible if the Italian government had had the courage to reach an agreement with the U.S. government."
Instead, she said, statements that amounted to confessions from two Italians were so damaging they made it politically impossible for her to seek diplomatic immunity for her client.
"No one expected the secret services to talk," she told The Associated Press in an interview.
She was referring to statements by several Italians cooperating with Milan prosecutors that described Lady's alleged involvement with the Feb. 17, 2003, abduction of Egyptian Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street.
Prosecutors say the operation was a breach of Italian sovereignty that compromised their own anti-terrorism efforts. None of the defendants attended the hearing.
Asked whether he thought Pesce's withdrawal signaled the CIA's attempt to dissociate itself from the case, prosecutor Armando Spataro, who requested the indictments, said her statements were reminiscent of an era when terrorist groups tried to discredit Italian justice.
"I heard the same thing from the Red Brigades during the terror trials in the 1970s," Spataro said.
Pesce, who met with Seldon Lady four or five times in the United States, most recently in September, said the court had already appointed a new lawyer for him.
All but one of the Americans have been identified by the prosecution as CIA agents, including former station chiefs in Rome and Milan; the other is a U.S. Air Force officer who was stationed at the time at Aviano air base near Venice. The Italians include the former head of the Italian military intelligence, Nicolo Pollari.
In Italy, defendants are not required to attend preliminary hearings, or even trials. Spataro has asked Premier Romano Prodi's center-left government to seek the extradition of the American suspects, but there has been no response.
The previous prime minister, conservative Silvio Berlusconi, who was a close ally of President Bush, refused.
Pollari's defense lawyers said Tuesday they intend in the next session to try to have both Prodi and Berlusconi take the witness stand, as well as their respective defense ministers.
Even if a request is made for the Americans' extradition _ a move bound to irritate U.S.-Italian relations _ it was unlikely that the CIA agents would be turned over for trial abroad.
The CIA has refused to comment on the case.
Associated Press Writer Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.