Will Italy find CIA agents guilty of kidnap?
A Milan court is due to return verdicts on CIA agents accused of the extraordinary rendition of a Muslim cleric
Later this month, a Milan court is due to return verdicts on 26 Americans, all but one of them CIA agents, accused of the extraordinary rendition of a radical Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. The trial, which has been going on for two years, has become known as the 'Imam rapito' or 'Kidnapped cleric' case.
Armando Spataro, a public prosecutor who made his name with a series of big mafia trials in the Nineties, wants to send the 26 Americans down for between ten and 13 years. Because the agents are being tried in absentia, and the US won't extradite them, it is unlikely any of them will ever end up behind bars.
Nonetheless, a guilty verdict would still be of symbolic importance: a repudiation of the unchecked zeal with which the Bush administration chased its enemies in the aftermath of 9/11; a firm message that no intelligence agency is above the law, even in an allied country; and a significant victory for the independence of the Italian judiciary, which had been under government pressure not to pursue this case.
Many of the CIA agents stayed in Milan and shopped with their own credit cards
"Democracies are founded on principles that cannot be renounced even in moments of emergency," Spataro said last week. "If we gave up that vision we would have partly lost the fight against terrorism."
For an extraordinary rendition, the details of what happened to Nasr, otherwise known as Abu Omar, are uncharacteristically clear. Born in 1963, he became a member of Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, an Islamist movement which wanted to overthrow the Egyptian government, and he reportedly collaborated with the Albanian secret services in the mid-1990s.
After seeking political asylum in Italy, Nasr ended up under investigation by both the CIA and SISMI - the Italian military intelligence agency - for a variety of alleged plots: building a terrorist recruitment network with links to al-Qaeda; sending Muslims to fight for Ansar-al-Islam, a militant Sunni group in Kurdish-controlled Iraq; attacking the US embassy in Rome; and killing the children of Western diplomats by bombing the American school in Milan.
In early 2003, the CIA, reportedly under the command of Robert Seldon Lady, the station chief in Milan, sent six agents to track Nasr. On February 17, he was walking to afternoon prayers at his mosque in Milan when two men posing as carabinieri blasted him with pepper-spray, and other members of a 13-strong snatch team bundled him into a white minivan. From there, Nasr was driven to Aviano, an airbase shared by Italy and the US, and flown to Germany, and then on to Egypt.
Apart from a short period under house arrest, Nasr was then imprisoned near Cairo for four years until an Egyptian court decided in February 2007 that the case against him was unfounded.
Nasr claimed that during his imprisonment he was frozen, beaten, raped and had his genitals subjected to electric shocks. Now deaf in one ear, Nasr has demanded €10 million in damages from Silvio Berlusconi.
Despite Nasr's screams, which attracted the attention of a passer-by who later reported what she had seen, the operation on the streets of Milan in 2003 was a smoothly executed example of extraordinary rendition.
However, the CIA agents were uncharacteristically casual in covering their tracks. Many of those involved stayed on in Milan under their real names, booked into swish hotels, shopped with their credit cards, and even broke speed limits. These are all considered unprofessional lapses for a team of spooks. The Americans also used US Embassy cell phones, didn't change the SIM cards, chatted freely to family and friends and made numerous calls to a number in northern Virginia - the CIA headquarters at Langley.
‘You can’t tackle terrorism with a law book in your hand’As a result, the prosecution have had little trouble finding evidence to incriminate the CIA squad. Their main obstacles have been political ones. Although the Italian secret services initially denied any involvement in the rendition, a steady drip of revelations has led to indictments against nine Italians involved with SISMI, and awkward public questions for two prime ministers, Berlusconi and Romano Prodi.
Berlusconi, of course, is used to shrugging off tricky questions. When asked about Nasr's rendition, he countered: "You can't tackle terrorism with a law book in your hand."
Robert Seldon Lady, who reportedly travelled with Nasr to Egypt and oversaw his interrogation, has also been asked about his involvement. He told Il Giornale, the Italian newspaper: "I'm not guilty. I'm only responsible for carrying out orders that I received from my superiors... I console myself by reminding myself that I was a soldier, that I was in a war against terrorism, that I couldn't discuss orders given to me."
Lady, nicknamed 'Mister Bob', grew up in Honduras, the son of a gold-mining environmentalist. After a career as a cop in New Orleans and with the CIA in Central America, he had moved to Milan for a glamour posting in early 2001, planning to retire with his wife to a villa in the Piedmontese wine region. Now though, after the pair fled to Honduras, Italian magistrates have confiscated their dream villa to pay for court costs. ·
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