Italy convicts 23 American agents in CIA kidnapping trial
Milan -- An Italian judge convicted 23 American and two Italian secret agents for the CIA's kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in 2003, as Washington expressed dismay over the ruling.
The CIA’s Milan station chief at the time, Robert Seldon Lady, was sentenced Wednesday to eight years in prison and the other Americans to five years, all in their absence in the landmark trial.
The two Italians were given three-year prison terms following the first trial involving the transfer of a "war on terror" suspect by CIA operatives thought to have sent scores of people to countries known to practise torture.
The CIA chief for Italy at the time, Jeffrey Castelli, and the then head of Italian military intelligence SISMI, Nicolo Pollari, were protected by state secrecy rules, while two other American defendants benefited from diplomatic immunity, Judge Oscar Magi said.
American President Barack Obama’s administration expressed disappointment at the verdict.
"We are disappointed by the verdicts against the Americans and Italians charged in Milan for their alleged involvement in the case involving Egyptian cleric Abu Omar," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington.
"Our view is the Italian court has no jurisdiction over Lieutenant Colonel (Joseph) Romano and should have immediately dismissed the charges," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
"Now that they have not, we will, of course, explore what options we have going forward."
Prosecutor Armando Spataro hailed the ruling, saying the trial, which opened in June 2007, had demonstrated "the truth of the investigation."
"We don’t need torture or rendition or secret prisons," Spataro told AFP. "We need full respect of the law otherwise we give the terrorists more motivation."
Spataro had sought a 13-year jail term for Castelli and Pollari — who was forced to quit over the affair.
In his closing statement, he said it was "surreal, absurd" to think that Joseph Romano, then head of security at the Aviano Air Force base, was unaware of Abu Omar’s arrival there.
Romano had requested for his case to be moved to a US military tribunal.
Osama Mustafa Hassan, an imam better known as Abu Omar, was snatched from a Milan street on February 17, 2003 in the operation coordinated by the CIA and SISMI.
The radical Islamist opposition figure, who enjoyed political asylum in Italy, was allegedly taken to the US air force base in Aviano, northeastern Italy, then flown to the US base in Ramstein, Germany, and on to Cairo where he says he was tortured.
The "extraordinary rendition" programme was set up by the administration of then president George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
The imam’s captors failed to take many standard precautions, notably speaking openly on cell phones, leaving investigators to suspect that the Americans had cleared their intentions with senior Italian intelligence officials.
The rights group Human Rights Watch welcomed the court move, even though the two highest-ranking officials were not convicted.
"No one was found innocent," noted Joanne Mariner, while lamenting those who "got off the hook because of the Constitutional Court’s over-broad interpretation of state secrecy."
"The Italian government was found responsible for collaborating with the CIA. It was a brave ruling for an Italian court," Mariner told AFP.
The trial was delayed as successive Italian governments sought to have it thrown out as a threat to national security. Defendants argued that state secrecy rules prevented them from being able to prove their innocence.
The issue went before Italy’s Constitutional Court, which agreed that part of the investigation had violated state secrecy provisions but said the prosecution could use evidence obtained correctly.
Prosecutor Spataro lamented what he called the "twisted logic" behind an operation that broke the law as well as sending a suspect to endure torture.
"This only encourages the multiplication of terrorists," said Spataro, who became known for his work against the left-wing militant group the Red Brigades that was active in the 1970s.