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.

6 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 [...]

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