ROME – An Italian judge convicted 23 Americans on Wednesday of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan in 2003, a sweeping verdict against one of the CIA’s most valued anti-terrorism tools – the practice known as extraordinary rendition.
The decision was a victory for Italian anti-terrorism prosecutors and police who spent six years building a massive case. The two-year trial exposed details of a secretive world and was the first anywhere to challenge the program under which the CIA abducted suspects and spirited them to third countries for interrogation.
A clandestine team of U.S. and Italian operatives abducted Abu Omar, a militant cleric suspected of recruiting fighters for Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was flown to Egypt, where he claimed to have undergone months of torture and abuse.
The case sparked international uproar, and the governments of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor tried repeatedly to scuttle the trial.
“I think it is very important for everyone that this trial was completed,” said Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor. He added: “The message of this important ruling – to nations, governments, institutions, secret services, etc. – is that we cannot use illegal instruments in our effort against terrorism. Our democracies, otherwise, would betray their principles.”
Judge Oscar Magi acquitted three other Americans, including the former CIA station chief in Italy, because they had diplomatic immunity. Magi also set aside charges against five Italian intelligence officials including the former chief and deputy chief of Italy’s spy agency, ruling they were protected by a state-secrets law. But he convicted two other Italians.
The Americans were tried in absentia. Given that the U.S. government has declined to cooperate with the prosecution, it seemed unlikely that any would spend time in an Italian prison. However, the convicted Americans may be at risk if they travel to Europe. Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants that can be executed in any of the European Union’s 27 countries.
The judge issued an eight-year prison sentence for Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan. Testimony indicated that Lady initially opposed abducting Abu Omar as unnecessary and dangerous but ultimately became the ground-level architect of the operation. The other U.S. operatives were given five-year sentences, and the Italians received three-year terms.
Omar has been released, but was not permitted to leave Egypt to attend the trial.