Italian court convicts 23 Americans in CIA rendition case; extradition undecided

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 4, 2009; 5:41 PM

MILAN -- An Italian court convicted 22 CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force colonel on kidnapping charges Wednesday in a stern rebuke to the U.S. government's long-standing practice of covertly seizing terrorism suspects abroad without a warrant.

The guilty verdicts are the only instance in which CIA operatives have faced a criminal trial for the controversial tactic of extraordinary rendition, under which terrorism suspects are abducted in one country and forcibly transported to another.

The CIA began carrying out renditions during the Clinton administration but intensified their frequency under orders from the Bush White House after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Obama administration said in August that it would continue the practice, but pledged to take steps to ensure that rendition targets are not tortured, either by the CIA or by foreign spy agencies.

In winning the guilty verdicts, Italian prosecutors took a contrary view, saying they were determined to enforce the law in spite of political pressure from Rome and Washington to drop the case.

"This decision sends a clear message to all governments that even in the fight against terrorism you can't forsake the basic rights of our democracies," said Armando Spataro, the deputy Milan public prosecutor.

The Americans were charged with snatching a Muslim cleric off the street here in 2003 and covertly flying him to Cairo, where he said he was subjected to electroshocks and other physical abuse.

The victim, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Egyptian imam also known as Abu Omar, had been under the surveillance of Italian anti-terrorism police. Italian criminal investigators said they were steamed to learn later that the CIA, secretly aided by Italian military intelligence agents, had intervened without their knowledge and thwarted their effort to bring Nasr to trial.

Nasr was subsequently indicted in Milan. He was released from prison in Cairo in 2007 but has been forbidden from leaving Egypt.

The Americans were all tried in absentia but were represented throughout the trial by defense attorneys, most of them court-appointed. The defendants each received a five-year prison sentence, with the exception of Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA's former chief in Milan, who was sentenced to eight years for leading the kidnapping operation.

In rendering the verdict, the judge in the case, Oscar Magi, acquitted three other Americans, including the former Rome station chief for the CIA, saying they were covered by diplomatic immunity.

Spataro said his office would seek to extradite the 23 Americans from the United States. But a formal decision rests with the Italian Justice Ministry, which so far has been reluctant to alienate Washington by asking for extradition.

The U.S. State Department expressed disappointment over the ruling. The CIA had no reaction. "The CIA has not commented on any of the allegations surrounding Abu Omar," said George Little, a CIA spokesman.

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