The Italian government denied Thursday that it knew in advance about the 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric, which investigators in Milan have said was carried out by a group of CIA operatives. Government officials summoned the U.S. ambassador to meet with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to answer questions about the case.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Carlo Giovanardi denied a report in Thursday's Washington Post that quoted four CIA veterans as saying that the agency's station chief in Rome briefed and sought approval from his counterpart in Italy before the abduction took place.
Responding to questions about the article in the Italian Senate, Giovanardi said simply, "It's false." Later, in the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house of Parliament, he called the Post article "a report without any foundation, a false report, which the Italian government is able to deny with great calm."
Legislators in Rome have been pressing the government for weeks to provide a fuller account of whether it knew anything about the disappearance of the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, on Feb. 17, 2003.
Many say they don't believe the government's claim of ignorance. "Obviously, they cannot admit this because it violates the constitution, Italian laws and international treaties," said Luigi Malabarba, leader of the Communist Refoundation Party and a member of the parliamentary committee that oversees the Italian secret services, according to the Agenzia Giornalistica Europa news service.
Tana De Zuleta, an opposition member of the Senate, said the government needed to do more to persuade the Italian public it was unaware of the kidnapping. She accused Giovanardi of dodging lawmakers' questions and not taking the case seriously. "He did seem to be rather embarrassed," she said. "He was very brief and laconic, given the gravity of the case."
"The silence is what is disconcerting," she added in a telephone interview from Rome. "We're calling on the government to prove that they were really not complicit, by expressing, if nothing else, their indignation and disappointment."
Meanwhile, the Italian government said it had asked U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler to meet with Berlusconi on Friday to respond to claims that the CIA abducted Nasr. Katherine Sharp, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Rome, declined to comment.
An Italian judge last week issued warrants for the arrests of 13 CIA operatives, charging them with kidnapping Nasr off a street in Milan as he walked to a local mosque to attend noon prayers. He was taken to Egypt and later told his wife in a phone call that he had been tortured with electric shocks.
Armando Spataro, the Milan prosecutor overseeing the criminal investigation of Nasr's disappearance, said his office was preparing a formal request for judicial assistance from the United States. Spataro said in a brief telephone interview Thursday that his office would also seek the extradition of the 13 CIA operatives.
Prosecutors said they were preparing to appeal the Milan judge's decision not to charge six other alleged CIA operatives in the kidnapping.
According to court documents filed in Milan, investigators found no evidence that the Italian government or Italian authorities were aware of the plot beforehand. Investigators concluded that the Egyptian government knew, but they were unable to prove its involvement conclusively.
An Italian law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the case, said that if the United States did not provide evidence of the Italian government's involvement, it would be difficult for the Milan court to confirm the four CIA veterans' assertions.