CIA, Italian Agents Ask for Milan Abduction Case to Be Halted
By Chiara Remondini and Gregory Viscusi
Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. and Italian agents accused of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric in 2003 disputed the right of a Milan court to try them, with the former head of Italy's military intelligence service threatening to call past and present ministers as witnesses if he's put on trial.
If Judge Caterina Interlandi decides to press charges against 35 U.S. and Italian agents for the 2003 abduction of Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, it would be first judicial examination of the U.S.'s policy of capturing terrorism suspects abroad and sending them to third countries for interrogation.
``Bob Lady insists the solution should be political and between the two governments and that this affair should not be the object of a criminal trial,'' said Daria Pesce, the lawyer for Robert Lady, the former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in the city who is accused by Milan prosecutor Armando Spataro of organizing the abduction. Pesce said she's withdrawing from the case ``because I am a lawyer and not a political mediator,'' and because Lady refuses to cooperate with the court.
Under the Italian system, a prosecutor, in this case Spataro, carries out an investigation and indicts the defendants. A judge then hears the case to decide whether to press charges. The actual trial would then be led by another judge, and the government has no legal right to intervene in the case.
After a first day of the initial proceedings in which lawyers on both sides presented various motions, Interlandi set the next hearing for Jan. 29.
Spataro, who brought the charges, compared Lady's arguments to those used by terrorists in the 1970s.
Tortured During Questioning
``Lady has contested the Italian justice system just as the Red Brigades did 20 years ago,'' Spataro said after the hearing, which wasn't open to the public.
According to Spataro, CIA and Italian agents kidnapped the Egyptian cleric, better known as Abu Omar, as he walked down a street in Milan and then flew him to Egypt where he was tortured during questioning about alleged terrorism links. He's still in custody there, prosecutors say.
Milan police were already tracking Abu Omar because they suspected him of recruiting Islamic radicals, and said the abduction disrupted their investigation.
Spataro also accuses Nicolo Pollari, the former head of Italy's military intelligence unit Sismi, and the agency's second-highest official, Marco Mancini, of helping with the kidnapping. Through lawyers, both men have declared their innocence.
In total, 26 U.S. individuals and nine Italians are accused.
`Reveals State Secrets'
In November, the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, which took office in June, replaced Pollari, as well as the heads of Sisde, the intelligence unit of the Interior Ministry, and Cesis, a body that compiles information from both services.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government denied that it or Italy's intelligence services had knowledge of or a role in Abu Omar's kidnapping.
``Either Pollari reveals state secrets, putting at risk national security, or he has no way to defend himself,'' said his lawyer Titta Madia after today's hearing. ``Some authority must take up this situation and take a decision.''
He said that if Pollari is sent to trial, he will ``call as witness the current Prime Minister, his predecessor, and all the authorities in charge of the secret services.''
None of the accused was present at today's hearing.
The accused Americans, including Lady, have left Italy, prosecutors said. The U.S. doesn't comment on specific cases against presumed terrorists.
Prosecutors say the case is an example of the U.S. policy of ``rendition,'' where terrorism suspects are shipped to countries with looser rules on using torture, such as Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan. Italy, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey cooperated with the U.S.'s rendition program by allowing flights to land and take off even though it broke the laws of those countries, the Council of Europe said in a report issued in June.
``The case of Abu Omar is a formally legal activity for the Americans,'' Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said in an interview last week. ``They call it rendition and there are acts of the president authorizing these operations. In Italian terms this is a kidnapping which bluntly violates our criminal code.''