Italian Judge Rules “Extraordinary Rendition” Illegal, Sentences CIA Agents

5.11.09

Abu OmarIn an unprecedented ruling in a courtroom in Milan, at the end of a trial that — in fits and starts — has lasted for over two years, 22 CIA agents and a US Air Force Colonel received sentences of between five and eight years (and two Italian agents received three-year sentences) for their involvement in the kidnapping and “extraordinary rendition” of Abu Omar (Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr). An Egyptian cleric, Abu Omar was seized in broad daylight from a street in Milan on February 17, 2003, and rendered to Egypt, where he was held for four years, and subjected to torture, before being released without charge in 2007.

The sentences for the Americans were delivered in absentia, as the US refused to extradite any of the men and women involved, but, as the first legal ruling anywhere in the world on the program of “extraordinary rendition” at the heart of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” the verdict is enormously significant. In the words of Armando Spataro, the Italian prosecutor who led the five-year investigation that culminated in the trial and the ruling, “It’s clear that the kidnapping of Abu Omar was a great mistake. It did serious damage in fighting terrorists because we don’t need torture, we don’t need renditions, we don’t need secret prisons.”

In a revealing interview after the ruling was delivered, former CIA officer Sabrina deSousa, one of those convicted, told ABC News that the United States “broke the law” in kidnapping Abu Omar and that “we are paying for the mistakes right now, whoever authorized and approved this.” She said the US “abandoned and betrayed” her and her colleagues, and pointed out that those who should have been held to account were the senior Bush administration officials who approved the program in the first place. As she explained, “Everything I did was approved back in Washington.”

DeSousa’s role in Abu Omar’s rendition does not appear to be in doubt. Although she stated that she was “on a ski trip on the actual day of the kidnapping,” Italian prosecutors said that she “helped organized the kidnapping using her diplomat cover at the US Consulate in Milan,” and this was confirmed by “several former US intelligence officials,” who spoke to ABC News. Nevertheless, although the former CIA station chief in Milan, Robert Seldon Lady, received an eight-year sentence, his was the most senior head to roll, and it is significant that Jeffrey Castelli, the CIA station chief in Rome, described by “several former CIA officers” as the “architect” of the kidnapping, was acquitted by the court, which “ruled that he and two others had diplomatic immunity because they worked out of the US Embassy in Rome.” As a result, deSousa undoubtedly had a point when she complained that “her status as a State Department diplomat should have protected her, but that the US refused to invoke diplomatic immunity.” Five senior Italian officials — including Nicolo Pollari, the former head of Italy’s military intelligence service, and his deputy — also escaped convictions, because the judge accepted that the evidence against them was subject to official secrecy restrictions.

Speaking to ABC News, US officials blamed the CIA for the “sloppy” tradecraft that led to the agents being identified. Former CIA officer Bob Baer stated, with obvious incredulity, “They were using e-mail, they were calling home, the Italians were able to connect their credit cards with true names and true addresses.” Contrasting his own activities during the Reagan administration, Baer added, “When we did a rendition, we did it in international waters. The Bush administration threw all caution to the wind.” Baer also pinpointed how the rendition program had become an aberrant project without adequate supervision. “He was the wrong guy,” he said, adding, “It was not worth putting the reputation of the United States on the line going after somebody like this.” Disturbingly, of course, Abu Omar was not the only “wrong guy” rendered to torture by the CIA. There were many others, some of whose stories have still not come to light, and whose whereabouts remain unknown, but one other enlightening example (of a man who was also rendered to Egypt) is the case of Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, who was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture in January 2002 based on little more than a whim.

In his regular column for Harper’s Magazine, lawyer Scott Horton contrasted the Italian ruling with the recent ruling in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in the case of Maher Arar, an innocent Syrian-Canadian national who, in October 2002, was rendered by the US to Syria, where he was held for a year and tortured in the notorious Palestine Branch prison. On November 2, the Court of Appeals dismissed Arar’s case against government officials (including FBI Director Robert Mueller, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Attorney General John Ashcroft) for their role in his kidnapping, “extraordinary rendition” and torture. As the Washington Post explained, “The appeals court said it cannot let Arar sue the US government without Congress enacting legislation that spells out exactly how a case as unusual as his can be brought and what potential remedy exists. Otherwise, the court said, allowing the lawsuit would ‘offend the separation of powers and inhibit this country’s foreign policy.'”

Describing the contrast between these rulings, Scott Horton explained:

[T]he outcomes could not have been more different. In the New York case, the Court of Appeals bowed to government pressure to refuse to hear the torture victim’s appeal. The decision, rendered by a group of largely Republican judges, is filled with breezy language openly acknowledging that the case turned on an extraordinary rendition, and suggesting that this was simply a policy choice for the government. The Italian court proved zealously independent of government influence from the beginning of the case down to judgment. It viewed extraordinary rendition linked to torture as a particularly grave crime, taking careful note of the historical precedents that supported that perspective. While the court accepted that state secrecy concerns restricted the court’s consideration of certain evidence, it nevertheless proceeded and rested its conclusions on evidence that was not protected. Similarly, the Italian court gave claims of immunity narrow applicability, so that only a handful of defendants could rely upon them. The court took the view that these highly technical defenses would give government actors some comfort, but it rejected the idea that they could escape accountability for a serious crime altogether.

The most telling difference focuses on the rights of the torture victim. The New York court concluded that the victim’s claims were overwhelmed by the government’s interest in protecting political actors against embarrassment. The Italian court insisted not only on the punishment of the perpetrators but also on the compensation of the torture victim. The Milan court sentenced the defendants to pay compensation to Abu Omar and his wife of €1.5 million ($2.3 million).

Quite a contrast, indeed — and one that should shame those in the US judicial system who continue to defend the Bush administration’s crimes, and, it should be noted, in the Obama adminstration itself, where senior officials continue to do all in their power to prevent senior Bush administration officials from being held accountable for their actions.

In a dissenting opinion in the Arar ruling, Judge Guido Calabresi captured the full significance of these failings, when he wrote, “I believe that when the history of this distinguished court is written, today’s majority decision will be viewed with dismay,” adding, “If anything, this decision is a loss to all Americans and to the rule of law.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

10 Responses

  1. Italian Judge Rules “Extraordinary Rendition” Illegal, Sentences CIA Agents by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad http://www.andyworthington.co.uk 5 November […]

  2. joni says...

    Hi Andy

    I cannot believe how little this story is being followed around the world. The US deliberately broke the law of Italy and no-one seems to think that that is a problem? Bizzare.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Joni,
    Thanks for the comment, and yes, it is surprising, isn’t it? Welcome to the surreal world of how to get your priorities wrong!

  4. Sandra West says...

    Hi Andy,

    I am doing research on this case. Where can I access the Italian case study? I am looking specifically what they ruled were the violations.

    Thanks

  5. America’s Disappeared « freedetainees.org says...

    […] addition, in 2009, an Italian court convicted in absentia 23 Americans — almost all CIA officials and operatives — for the brazen daylight kidnapping in Milan, in […]

  6. America’s Disappeared by Andy Worthington | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] addition, in 2009, an Italian court convicted in absentia 23 Americans — almost all CIA officials and operatives — for the brazen daylight kidnapping in Milan, in […]

  7. arcticredriver says...

    Greetings! Did you see that reporting today says Ms Sousa has voluntarily decided to go to Italy to serve some kind of sentence?

    I wonder what is going on there?

    I wonder if there is a quid pro quo, an understanding, she will serve a token amount of time, and get released for good behaviour, or similar.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Interesting. Thanks for the update, arcticredriver. I confess that I haven’t kept up with developments in the case in recent years. I kept seeing references to to Sabrine De Souza, but didn’t follow up on them.
    So she was arrested in Portugal under a European Arrest Warrant in October 2015, en route to see family in India.
    This is from the Guardian last October:

    She has insisted that she played a minor role in the early-stage discussions about renditions in general and was not specifically involved in the kidnapping of Abu Omar. She believes that she should have been offered diplomatic immunity and that she has become a thorn in the side of the CIA, her former employer.

    De Sousa has claimed senior officials had allowed lower-ranking employees to serve as scapegoats in the case, instead of accepting responsibility for the still-classified extraordinary rendition policy.

    Her arrest was partly the result of her own risky decision to travel from the US to Portugal late last year to visit family. Italy has never sought her extradition from the US, but De Sousa had been the subject of an outstanding European arrest warrant and was detained last October when she tried to leave Portugal to fly to India, where she also has family. […]

    In her interview with the Guardian, De Sousa said the US government had been instrumental in convincing the Italian president to issue partial pardons to two other officials last year – former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady and Betnie Medero – but had not previously advocated on her behalf.

    She also “acknowledged that she does not know what will happen next,” as the Guardian put it, saying, “To be very honest, I am looking at a complete and total unknown, because this has never happened to a federal employee and no CIA officer has ever been extradited.”

    See: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/25/former-cia-agent-sabrina-de-sousa-extradition-italy-abu-omar-kidnapping

    I have to say that I think De Souza was right to say that senior officials have “allowed lower-ranking employees to serve as scapegoats in the case, instead of accepting responsibility” themselves – despite her evident foolishness in travelling to Europe where an arrest warrant was in place.

    Today’s reports say that she “is currently in the United States after undergoing a medical procedure,” but told The Associated Press in an e-mail that “she will go to Italy on Friday.” After her arrest at Lisbon Airport in 2015, she “was released in March after Italy dropped its extradition request. Italy’s president then granted De Sousa partial clemency, shaving one year off her sentence,” and she “could be eligible for community service instead of serving prison time.”

    See: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1121661/world

    As the Guardian described the arrangement on Feb. 28 this year:

    “[T]he office of Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president, released a statement … saying that De Sousa had been granted a partial pardon, which would reduce her four-year sentence of detention by one year. The statement said that De Sousa would be able to serve her sentence with ‘alternative measures’ to detention, meaning that she could avoid spending any time in jail.”

    See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/28/ex-cia-agent-sabrina-de-sousa-pardoned-abu-omar

    We’ll have to see what happens next. It sound like an alternative to jail time is most likely, but this confirms that it is unsafe for any of those involved in the Abu Omar kidnap and rendition to travel to Europe – and, I believe, it only reinforces the notion that all senior Bush administration officials (up to and including George W. Bush himself) should remain wary of travel to Europe. Back in February 2011, Bush cancelled a trip to Switzerland because of fears that he would be arrested for torture, as I explained in an article at the time: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2011/02/15/george-w-bush-war-criminal-is-not-welcome-in-europe/

  9. arcticredriver says...

    What a contrast between portrayals of undercover teams of spies, Hollywood tries to be realistic, and the conduct of the team lead by Robert Seldon Lady.

    James Bond movies, of course, aren’t realistic. And, in the 007 movies we see him traveling under his own name, and staying in luxury hotels.

    There have been a number of movies, that seem to be trying to be realistic, that showed Israeli undercover agents, hunting former Nazis, or the terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Jessica Chastain is in one of those recent movies. We see her and her team living in dumps, not the luxury hotels James Bond favoured.

    Robert Seldon Lady’s team stayed in luxury hotels. They indulged in expensive spa treatments, and gourmet meals.

    What we see going on in this incident shows a terrible weakness in how we in the west treat intelligence agencies, intelligence officials.

    Non-profit enterprises, companies that issue stock, and government organizations that don’t operate in secret, all have to operate in a system with oversight, checks and balances, audit trails. My food coop, my housing coop, is required to have a yearly audit.

    But intelligence agencies are routinely allowed to skip being audited.

    No auditing? Why not book everyone at a luxury hotel? Why not order gourmet meals, spa days?

    De Souza may not have played an actual meaningful role in the kidnapping. So, what was she doing there?

    Maybe she heard that a “snatch team” was heading for Italy, for an operation where there would be no auditing, no questioning if the final bill amounted to millions, and she appealed to Robert Seldon Lady, or one of his lieutenants, and said something like: “I know you don’t need me, there will be no actual role for me, but I need a couple of weeks of gourmet meals, at a luxury hotel. So, how about adding me to the roster?”

    If De Souza ended up in Italy because she was an opportunist, I’d be less inclined to show her sympathy for being unlucky enough to be punished, when more central characters remain unindited.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I can’t address how De Souza specifically ended up in Italy, arcticredriver, because I have no specific knowledge of her circumstances, but overall the operation remains shocking – in that the agents were so arrogant that they didn’t cover they tracks, and were also so lavish in their expenditure. Very much as though they were basing real life on their Bond-like notions of what the job entailed!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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