Italians Convict Americans in Rendition Case

In Rendition on November 5, 2009 at 9:36 am

An Italian court convicted 23 Americans in absentia for their role in the kidnapping and rendition of a Muslim cleric suspected of terrorism:

MILAN — In a landmark ruling, an Italian judge on Wednesday convicted a base chief for the Central Intelligence Agency and 22 other Americans, almost all C.I.A. operatives, of kidnapping a Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003.  The case was a huge symbolic victory for Italian prosecutors, who drew the first convictions involving the American practice of rendition, in which terrorism suspects are captured in one country and taken for questioning in another, often one more open to coercive interrogation techniques.

Critics of the Bush administration have long hailed the case as a repudiation of the tactics it used to fight terrorism. And the fact that Italy would actually convict intelligence agents of an allied country was seen as a bold move that could set a precedent in other cases.  Still, the convictions may have little practical effect. They do not seem to change the close relations between the United States and Italy. Nor did they reveal whether the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had approved the kidnapping. And it seemed highly unlikely that anyone, Italian or American, would spend any time in prison.

At the time of his abduction, Mr. Nasr was under surveillance by the Italian authorities, who suspected him of preaching violence from his Milan mosque and recruiting militants to send to Iraq in anticipation of the American invasion. He was missing for a year, finally resurfacing in Egypt, where he called his wife in Italy to say he had been tortured. The phone call was enough to activate Italian prosecutors, who are required to investigate if there is the possibility of a crime. Prosecutors were able to reconstruct his disappearance using cellphone records traced to the American agents. The operatives used false names but left a paper trail of unencrypted cellphone records and credit card bills at luxury hotels in Milan.

Court-appointed lawyers for several of the American defendants assert that prosecutors never adequately established their clients’ identities. They said they would appeal the ruling. “The C.I.A. has not commented on any of the allegations surrounding Abu Omar,” said Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman. The Italian government has denied involvement. Through a spokesman, it declined to comment on Wednesday.

In June, Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the brother of Mr. Berlusconi, published an interview that it said it had conducted via Skype with Mr. Lady, the former C.I.A. base chief in Milan, whose whereabouts are unknown. In the interview, he said of Abu Omar’s abduction: “Of course it was an illegal operation. But that’s our job. We’re at war against terrorism.”


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