The arrest in Panama of a former CIA station chief for his role in an “extraordinary rendition” of an Egyptian Muslim cleric in Italy a decade ago is set to strain relations between Washington and one of its staunchest European allies.
He is accused of masterminding the illegal snatching of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, off the streets of Milan in 2003, under the controversial US practice of renditions of terrorism suspects. The cleric was suspected of being a hardline Islamist involved in recruiting jihadi fighters.
Mr. Lady was handed over to Interpol in Panama on Friday, after being arrested at the border on Thursday. He was in charge of the team of CIA operatives and officers from Italy’s domestic intelligence agency who snatched Abu Omar from Milan, where he was living.
Rome is now expected to apply for his extradition so that he can be made to serve out his sentence. Anna Maria Cancellieri, Italy’s justice minister, signed a request for the former spy to be detained in Panama, and has two months in which to request that he be extradited.
But the US government seems certain to fight hard to prevent the extradition of a senior former CIA operative on the grounds of national security.
“The authorities in the United States will resist, in every way possible, the extradition of Seldon Lady and will apply pressure in any way they can to ensure it does not happen,” says Ferdinando Pomarici, a Milan prosecutor who was also involved in the investigation into Abu Omar's kidnapping.
Kidnapping and torture
Abu Omar, who was an Italian resident at the time, was abducted in Milan and secretly flown via a US base at Ramstein in Germany to Egypt for interrogation. When he emerged from the jail four years later, he claimed that he had been subjected to torture – including beatings, electric shocks, and threats of sexual assault – for seven months.
Lady, who is now retired from the CIA, justified his actions in an interview with an Italian newspaper four years ago from an undisclosed location, saying he was "a soldier ... in a war against terrorism."
In the first trial of its kind against the highly contentious rendition flights operated by the former administration of President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US, Lady was sentenced in absentia in 2009 to nine years in an Italian jail. Twenty-two other Americans were also found guilty, but Lady received the most severe sentence.
By the time the sentences were handed down, they had all left Italy. An amnesty law passed by Italy in 2006 reduces by three years all sentences meted out by Italian courts, meaning that if the former agent is brought back to Italy, he would face six years in prison.
The Lady verdict was challenged in the Italian courts but was upheld by the country’s top court last year, in a decision which Washington described at the time as “disappointing.” The then-minister of justice, Paola Severino, issued an international arrest warrant for Seldon Lady.
'A crisis between Rome and Washington'?
The arrest made front page news in Italy, with one newspaper, La Stampa, describing the former agent as “a 007.”
“There’s a risk now of a crisis between Rome and Washington,” the Turin-based daily said.
But Emanuele Fiano, a legislator in the center-Left Democratic Party, one of the main partners in Italy’s coalition government, said the extradition should go ahead even if it did upset the Americans.
“For Italy, it’s important to obtain the extradition of the ex-head of the CIA in Milan in order to respect a sentence which established clear responsibility in this ugly business,” he told an Italian news agency.
Whether Panama will decide to accede to Italy’s request and extradite the former station chief remains unclear. There is no extradition treaty between the two nations, but the Panamanian government could still elect to send the American to Italy.
It does, however, have one of the closest relationships with Washington of any Central American country.
“I think it will be very difficult to effect Seldon Lady’s arrival in Italy, even if his role was crucial in the rendition of Abu Omar,” says Stefano Dambruoso, an anti-terrorism expert who was involved in the Italian investigation into the abduction of the cleric.
The ex-CIA agent, who was born in Honduras, was arrested in the town of Guabito, in western Panama, having been refused entry into Costa Rica, according to the Panama newspaper La Prensa.
He and the Colombian woman he was traveling with were reportedly involved in a disagreement over the obligation to pay a tourist tax to enter Costa Rica.
When immigration authorities ran a check, they found that he was wanted by Interpol.
In an emailed statement, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has campaigned against renditions, as well as the US jail at Guantanamo Bay, said: "U.S. officials who have thus far evaded any accountability for their role in a global torture program should take today's development as a warning sign."