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.
Although it is considered unlikely that any of the convicted Americans will spend time in an Italian prison cell, the trial has served as a public embarrassment for the CIA.
According to Italian investigators, the CIA operatives failed miserably to hide their tracks as several of them gabbed on unsecured cell phones, showed their passports to hotel desk clerks and went on vacation in Italian resorts after the kidnapping.
Lady, the CIA's chief in Milan, also left incriminating evidence on a computer seized by investigators from his Italian villa, including flight schedules to Egypt. He did not respond to a message seeking comment.
According to prosecutors, the mastermind behind the abduction was Jeffrey Castelli, the CIA's Rome station chief at the time. Court documents show that he discussed several other possible renditions with Italian intelligence officials, though there is no evidence that they were carried out.
Magi, the judge, acquitted Castelli and two other U.S. defendants, Betne Medero and Ralph Henry Russomando, the former first secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, saying they were covered by diplomatic immunity.
Castelli, who has left the CIA and now works for the Washington office of a Los Angeles-based marketing analysis firm, declined to comment when reached by telephone Wednesday after the verdict.
The Italian judge did not explain why three of the Americans were covered by diplomatic immunity, but not a handful of others who had held official U.S. government posts in Italy. Most of the defendants, operating under assumed names, arrived in Italy a few weeks before the kidnapping.
One of those convicted, Sabrina De Sousa, formerly a second secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, has sued the State Department for failing to claim diplomatic immunity on her behalf. "I am saddened, dismayed and angered that the government I served abandoned me completely and I am being punished for conduct I did not do," she said in an e-mail after the verdict.
The U.S. Defense Department unsuccessfully tried to protect the convicted Air Force officer, Col. Joseph L. Romano, III, by invoking his right to a U.S. military tribunal instead under NATO rules. Romano was posted at Aviano Air Base, a joint U.S.-Italian military installation. "We clearly are disappointed with the ruling," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters.
The judge also convicted two Italian defendants, ruling they had acted as accomplices. Five other Italian defendants, including Nicolo Pollari, the former chief of SISMI, the Italian military intelligence service, were acquitted. Magi said they were protected by an earlier ruling by Italy's constitutional court that evidence collected against them was inadmissible under Italy's state secrets law.
Staff writer Peter Finn in Washington contributed to this report.