After two years of wrangling to head off a case that centered around the Bush administration's practice of abducting alleged terrorists abroad and sending them to friendly third states for interrogation, Italian prosecutors won a stunning victory on Wednesday, when 23 US intelligence agents were convicted in absentia by a Milan court for kidnapping.
The practice of "extraordinary rendition" became common for the CIA after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, with hundreds of alleged militants abducted in Europe and Central Asia and elsewhere, and delivered to states like Algeria, Egypt, and Syria, where torture is often used against presumed enemies of the state. The US says it received assurances that torture would not be used. But the practice has been especially controversial in Europe, where roughly 100 Muslim men have been abducted.
In a ruling that could damage US-Italian relations, Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA station chief in Milan, was handed an eight-year sentence, and the 22 others -- all believed to have been CIA employees or contractors -- were given five-year sentences for the 2003 abduction from a Milan street of Muslim cleric Hassan Moustafa Osama Nasr. The convicted Americans were also ordered to pay Mr. Nasr and his wife $2 million. It was the first conviction for a rendition case. None of the men are in Italy, and their whereabouts have not been disclosed.
A spokeswoman for the State Department said the US was "disappointed" by the verdict, adding that the US was waiting for a written opinion from the judge before addressing the matter further. As to a possible extradiction request from Italy, she said: "It is a longstanding tradition of the United States not to comment on extradition matters … but we would note that because of anticipated appeals this matter is likely to continue in litigation in Italy and that final decisions with respect to the accused are unlikely for some time."
In what the Italian press dubbed the "kidnapped Imam affair," Nasr, often referred to by his nickname Abu Omar, was bundled into a minivan as he walked to noon prayers on Feb. 17, 2003, and driven to America's Aviano airbase in Italy. From there, he was flown to Rammstein airbase in Germany and eventually on to Egypt, his native country, on a Learjet. Nasr was put under house arrest in Egypt in 2004 and said he had been tortured while in detention.
While Italian prosecutors argued they struck a blow for the rule of law, and sent a message that not even close friends like the US can expect freedom of action in Italy, their investigation also found that the abduction took place with the knowledge of the Italian intelligence services. Three Italian intelligence officers who were charged in the abduction were acquitted on Wednesday, with sentencing Judge Oscar Magi saying their acquittals were necessary to protect Italian state secrets.
Nasr, whom Egypt had granted asylum in 2001, was under surveillance by Italian intelligence at the time of his arrest on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. Italian law-enforcement agents said the US abduction disrupted their case. US official privately alleged, when his abduction became public, that Nasr was recruiting operatives to travel to Iraq to oppose the looming US invasion.
The CIA declined to comment.
Nasr's allegations of torture are unproven, but torture is common in Egyptian prisons -- as it is in a number of other countries that have been used in the US rendition program. The US State Department in its annual report on Egypt's human rights practices said in 2004 that Egyptian "security forces continued to mistreat and torture prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, hold detainees in prolonged pretrial detention, and occasionally engaged in mass arrests."