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In Italy, Judge Convicts 23 Americans in CIA Kidnapping Case

November 4, 2009 at 6:43 PM EDT
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An Italian judge on Wednesday convicted 23 Americans in the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan. Ray Suarez speaks with a Los Angeles Times reporter for more on the landmark case.

RAY SUAREZ: The verdicts came in Milan, where a judge convicted 23 Americans of kidnapping an Egyptian terror suspect in 2003. They had been tried in absentia. The case was closely followed in Italy. It was the first prosecution by any government involving extraordinary rendition.

The CIA program moved suspects from place to place overseas for interrogation, without arrests or extradition hearings. The target in this case was Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, an Egyptian cleric also known as Abu Omar living in political asylum in Italy.

The Americans were accused of abducting him off the street in Milan as he walked to his mosque on February 17, 2003. He was taken to U.S. military bases in Italy and Germany, before winding up in Egypt.

In 2007, he was released without being charged. He showed dark scars on his wrists and ankles and said he had been tortured by the Egyptians.

OSAMA MOUSTAFA HASSAN NASR (through translator): I would like to appeal to the Italian judiciary and the Italian government to stand by me in this ordeal that I faced. I want to go back to Italy, but I’m banned from leaving Egypt. I want to go back and stand in front of the Italian judiciary and prove my innocence.

RAY SUAREZ: In the end, Abu Omar was never allowed to return to Italy. But the trial proceeded without him and without any of the 26 Americans originally charged in the case.

Most of the 26 were identified as employees of the CIA. Three were acquitted, in part because of diplomatic immunity. Those convicted included the agency’s former station chief in Milan, who got eight years in prison.

The other 22 were sentenced to five years each. Seven Italians were also charged in the case, but only two were convicted as accomplices.

In Washington, the CIA declined to comment on the case or its outcome. A State Department spokesman said the U.S. government is disappointed, but he said he expected an appeal. That process could take years.

For more on the case, we turn to a reporter who has covered it since the beginning. Sebastian Rotella is a national security correspondent for “The Los Angeles Times” and other Tribune newspapers. Up until July of this year, he was an investigative correspondent based in Europe and focusing on terrorism.

And, Sebastian, there have been many cases of extraordinary rendition reported on over the past eight years. How did this one get to court?

The path to court

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, "The Los Angeles Times": There's an extraordinary convergence of circumstances in this case.

It's a rendition that happens in a Western nation, a close ally, and the people who do it, several of them were close to the Italian police. An elite unit of the Italian anti-terrorist police, quite quickly suspected them, started gathering a great deal of physical evidence that they had left behind.

And when Abu Omar is released and calls his wife, they intercept the telephone call and put the case together. And, very quickly then, they build this massive prosecution that benefits from credit card charges, cell phone traffic and other things that the abduction team had left behind.

RAY SUAREZ: This has been going on for six years. Did at any time the U.S. government acknowledge that these people named as defendants were working for the U.S. government and involved in such a program?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: It acknowledged that the people who were based at the embassy were -- were based at the embassy, because that was clear. There were several of them. But it said as little as possible about most of them, many of them being clandestine paramilitary operatives.

RAY SUAREZ: Did they aid in the defense in any way, hire lawyers, or send out government lawyers to Italy?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: No. These were -- the lawyers were provided by the Italian government, public defenders. And many of them have never met their clients. They refer to them as ghosts, friendly ghosts.

RAY SUAREZ: Under current law, will the Americans convicted today face extradition? Can they be sent to Italy to do jail time?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Theoretically, it's very unlikely that that would happen. I think the Italian government hasn't even issued arrest warrants, beyond warrants that have been issued in Europe.

The only real danger to these people who have been convicted would be if they were to travel somewhere in the European Union, in which case they would be subject to those arrest warrants.

Italians "betrayed"

RAY SUAREZ: Now, some of the people involved on the Italian side were prominent anti-terrorism investigators, in some cases working with the people who were on trial here. How did they end up targeting Americans, instead of working alongside them?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: That's one of the most remarkable things about this case. Particularly, the CIA chief in Milan is a very experienced anti-terror operative. He's working closely with the Italian police, but, at the same time, he's working with the Italian intelligence service.

And there are orders from above, according to testimony, to do the abduction. So, he ends up basically carrying out this operation sort of under the noses of the police he was working for. The police are enraged by that, felt betrayed by that. And that I think gave it sort of an extra personal impetus to follow the trail wherever it led.

RAY SUAREZ: Did anything come up during the trial, which was lengthy, about whether the Italian government, at any level, knew this was about to happen or in any way green-lighted this operation?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: I think it's clear from the testimony that the Italian intelligence service green-lighted it and people from the Italian intelligence service were involved. The -- some of the people were not acquitted today, the chiefs of the Italian intelligence service.

They were -- the charges were set aside because of state secrecy laws.

Gathering evidence

RAY SUAREZ: Now, for you, as an investigative reporter, watching how intelligence agencies work, was it a surprise that they could find out as much about how the Americans conducted this operation as quickly as they did, once it was clear that Abu Omar had been snatched out of the country?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: It was somewhat surprising that there was such an extensive physical trail. Obviously, the people who did the operation felt they had the green light from a fellow intelligence service, so that they could go ahead.

What I found remarkable was the human question, where you have these different agencies working together, and this -- and this kind of tragic figure at the center of it, a CIA chief, who supposedly opposed the operation, felt it was a bad idea, but then went ahead and did it, and all the acrimony and bad blood that resulted afterward.

RAY SUAREZ: And you're speaking of Robert Lady, who was the Milan station chief. He's back in the United States now. Is he separated from the CIA?


RAY SUAREZ: What happens to him now? He was given the most harsh sentence, eight years. Can he go back to work for security agencies, for intelligence, or is his career basically over?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: I think, for a lot of these people, their careers are over.

The question is, if they are going to work for security agencies, they have this problem of these pending arrest warrants and questions about travel and things like that. It's a case that really shows how this -- how this world can be treacherous for the people who are on the front line.

Abu Omar's search for damages

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the man who was taken off the streets of Milan, Abu Omar, ends up being cast almost as a victim in this case. But Italian and American intelligence agencies suspected he was connected with terrorist groups, didn't they?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: I don't think there's any doubt about that. The very prosecutors and police who investigated the rendition will tell you they felt he was a bad guy, and they had him targeted, and that's -- but they didn't feel he was an imminent danger, and that it was a mistake to do this operation, because they could have eventually charged him in a court of law.

But this is not a case of mistaken identity or a victim who is seen in some quarters as purely innocent.

RAY SUAREZ: Does today's verdict strengthen his attempt to win millions of dollars in damages in an Italian court?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Theoretically, each of the defendants would have to pay him, I think, a million euros. I think that's going to be hard, though, given that the very prosecutors and investigators have said that they felt he was a bad guy involved in terrorism. But it is another of the ironic aspects of this very convoluted case.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned earlier that he got the ball rolling by making that call from Egypt to his wife, which was tapped. Is he back in prison now? Is he still in prison in Egypt?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: My understanding is that he is not, that he has been -- he's been out of prison, but that he's monitored in a kind of a limbo within Egypt, but that he's not in prison.

RAY SUAREZ: Sebastian Rotella of the Tribune newspapers, thanks for joining us.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: My pleasure. Thank you.