Judge in Italy convicts 23 Americans in 2003 CIA kidnapping of Egyptian cleric
By Maria de Cristofaro and Sebastian Rotella
November 4, 2009 | 10:09 a.m.
Reporting from Washington and Rome - A judge in Milan convicted 23 Americans today of the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in 2003, culminating a landmark trial that gave a look into the secret world of CIA renditions of terror suspects.
Judge Oscar Magi acquitted three Americans, including the former CIA station chief in Italy, because they had diplomatic immunity when a secret team abducted militant cleric Abu Omar in Milan and flew him to Egypt, where he underwent months of torture and abuse. The Americans were tried in absentia, and given that the U.S. government has long declined to cooperate with the prosecution, it seemed unlikely that any of those convicted would spend time in an Italian prison.
Magi set aside charges against the former chief and deputy chief of Italy's spy agency, ruling they were protected by a state secrets law, but he convicted three other accused Italian accomplices.
Overall, the verdict was a victory for anti-terrorism prosecutors and police in Milan who spent six years building a massive, politically charged prosecution, the first anywhere of the CIA's so-called "extraordinary rendition" program. The trial endured delays, legal battles and attempts by the Italian government to scuttle the proceedings.
"I think it is very important for everyone that this trial was completed," said Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor. "The truth of the events is that which was reconstructed by the DIGOS [investigative police] and the Milan prosecutors during the investigation."
The judge issued an eight-year prison sentence for Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan who according to testimony initially opposed the rendition but then became its ground-level architect. The other U.S. operatives were given five-year sentences, and the Italians received three-year terms.
The rendition caused conflict among U.S. and Italian anti-terror officials because Italian police had been investigating Abu Omar as an alleged extremist leader with the help of Lady. Testimony revealed that the station chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli, and other officials decided to abduct the cleric instead, rejecting complaints from Lady and Italian counterparts that the operation would be illegal and counterproductive.
But the rendition team left a sloppy trail of cellphone calls, credit card charges and photo identification documents that enabled Italian police to assemble a meticulously detailed portrait of the crime.
De Cristofaro is a special correspondent.