A former CIA officer convicted for her role in the kidnapping of a terrorism suspect in Milan was detained for one day in Portugal earlier this week, and now waits to learn whether she will be returned to Italy serve her prison sentence.
Sabrina De Sousa, 59, a dual U.S. and Portuguese citizen, was one of 23 Americans — mostly CIA officials, plus an Air Force colonel — convicted in an Italian court for either orchestrating or participating in the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, in 2003.
No Americans have served prison time for the controversial abduction because they had already left Italy by the time of their convictions in 2009, rulings upheld by Italy’s highest court in 2012. (One American, Col. Joseph L. Romano III, a retired Air Force commander, was pardoned in 2013.)
The investigation and charges by Italian authorities against the CIA officers embarrassed the spy agency, exposing the operatives’ tradecraft and opening them up to ridicule. The case also marked the first time a foreign country had convicted U.S. officials on charges related to rendition, the practice in which a terrorism suspect is forcibly taken to another country for interrogation.
Abu Omar was stopped on a street in Milan, thrown into van, taken to a U.S. air base in Italy and ultimately flown to Egypt, where, according to his wife and Italian prosecutors, he was beaten and given electric shocks to his genitals.
De Sousa, who lives in Washington, has always maintained that she did not participate in the actual kidnapping. She was chaperoning her son’s ski trip in northern Italy on the day of Abu Omar’s abduction in Milan. But she did work as an “interpreter” for a CIA “snatch” team that visited Milan and met with Italian intelligence officials and planned the rendition, an acknowledgment she first made to the McClatchy news service in 2013.
In an interview Thursday with The Washington Post, De Sousa said that she flew in late April to Portugal, where she and her husband spend part of the year. She knew she could be arrested anywhere in Europe and extradited to Italy. But she figured that if she were arrested, the urgency of her case might prompt U.S. and Italian authorities to grant her clemency and reinvestigate the kidnapping.
“I didn’t want to sneak into the country. I’ve got nothing to hide. This thing needs to be resolved,” she said. “This has gone on for 10 years. It’s impacted my life. I’ve got relatives in Europe, and I don’t see any reason to give that up. The rendition should have never taken place, and we were all thrown under the bus for it.”
De Sousa, who left the CIA in early 2009, sued the agency and the Justice Department later that year, demanding that she receive diplomatic immunity against the Italian charges. A federal judge dismissed her case but lamented that De Sousa’s predicament sends a “potentially demoralizing” message to other Foreign Service officers stationed abroad.
The CIA declined to comment.
On Monday, De Sousa went to the airport in Lisbon to fly to Dubai, then Bombay, ending her trip in Goa, where she planned to visit her ailing, 89-year-old mother. But as her tickets were being processed, she said, authorities noticed that she was wanted in Italy.
“There was a warrant for me, and they said they couldn’t let me fly,” De Sousa said.
The Portuguese detained her overnight at a police station but released her the next day after a court proceeding and took her passport.
De Sousa declined to describe the court hearing, other than to say that authorities treated her well and that she was never placed behind bars.
“The interesting part of it is the timing,” De Sousa said. “Why now? When I came into Portugal I did not get detained. I have been here for several months and the Italians never asked Portugal to surrender me to Italy. When was it put into their system at the airport? Someone in Italy seemed to know I was traveling.”
Armando Spataro, the Italian prosecutor who helped lead the investigation into the CIA officers’ rendition operation, declined to be interviewed. U.S. officials have long maintained that the operation had been blessed by Italian officials.
Of the other Americans convicted, only one other came close to being extradited. Two years ago, Robert Seldon Lady, who was the CIA’s station chief in Milan at the time of Abu Omar’s rendition, was detained in Panama at the request of Italy. But Lady was released and sent back to the United States.
De Sousa, who said she has asked the Italian government for clemency, does not know what will happen next. She has no pending court date but said she has an attorney. “It’s not an automatic extradition. I have to talk to my attorney, but he doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now,” De Sousa said.
On Thursday morning, she tweeted, “Update: In Portugal, but not in detention. Senior CIA officers who planned/authorized #Milanrendition shuld be held accountable.#scapegoatery.”