A judge Friday indicted 26 Americans and five Italians in the abduction of an Egyptian terror suspect on a Milan street in what would be the first criminal trial stemming from the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program.
The judge set a trial date for June 8, although the Americans, who have all left the country, almost certainly will not be returned to Italy.
Prosecutors allege that five Italian intelligence officials worked with the Americans to seize Muslim cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr on Feb. 17, 2003.
Nasr was allegedly transferred by vehicle to the Aviano Air Force base near Venice, then by air to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and on to Egypt, where his lawyer says he was tortured. Nasr was freed earlier this week by an Egyptian court that found his four years of detention in Egypt “unfounded,” and he is at a family home in Alexandria.
All but one of the Americans have been identified as CIA agents, including the former Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady and former Rome station chief Jeffrey Castelli. The other is a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at the time at Aviano.
Among the Italians indicted by Judge Caterina Interlandi was the former chief of military intelligence, Nicolo Pollari, and his former deputy, Marco Mancini.
Pollari, the only defendant who appeared at the preliminary hearing, has insisted that Italian intelligence played no role in the alleged abduction, and told the judge he was unable to defend himself properly because documents clarifying his position had been excluded from the proceedings because they contain state secrets.
The CIA has refused to comment on the case, which has put an uncomfortable spotlight on its operations.
Prosecutors seek extradition of Americans
Prosecutors are pressing the Italian government to seek the extradition of the Americans. The previous government of Silvio Berlusconi refused, and Premier Romano Prodi’s center-left government has yet to make its decision.
Even if a request is made for their extradition — a move bound to further strain U.S.-Italian relations — it was unlikely that the CIA agents would be turned over for trial abroad.
All of the U.S. agents have court-appointed lawyers, who have acknowledged having no contact with their clients. In Italy, defendants can be tried in absentia.
Alessia Sorgato, a lawyer who represents three Americans, said she has not been able to talk to her clients.
“I’m happy because I will be able to fully argue the case,” Sorgato said after the ruling. Sorgato and Guido Meroni, a lawyer representing six Americans, have argued that the evidence connecting their clients to Nasr’s disappearance was circumstantial, based on phone records and their presence in locations in Italy during the period before the abduction.
Prosecutors say the alleged kidnapping operation was a breach of Italian sovereignty that compromised Italy’s own anti-terrorism efforts.
Man suspected of fighting, recruiting for radical causes
According to Italian officials, Nasr fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia and was suspected of recruiting fighters for radical Islamic causes. But his lawyer, Montasser al-Zayat, said Nasr had only traveled to Jordan, Yemen, Albania and Germany before entering Italy illegally in 1997.
No charges have ever been brought against Nasr. He was under investigation for terrorism-related activities at the time of his abduction, and Milan prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest more than two years after he disappeared, while he was in Egyptian custody. Italy and Egypt do not have an extradition treaty.
Nasr’s lawyer in Egypt told Italian state TV that he wants to return to Italy, where he had been granted the status of political refugee.
Prosecutors elsewhere in Europe are moving ahead with cases aimed at the CIA program.
This week, the Swiss government approved prosecutors’ plans to investigate the flight that allegedly took Nasr over Swiss airspace from Italy to Germany.
A Munich prosecutor recently issued arrest warrants for 13 people in another alleged CIA-orchestrated kidnapping, that of a German citizen who says he was seized in December 2003 at the Serbian-Macedonia border and flown to Afghanistan.