The first trial involving the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program opened in Italy on Friday in the absence of all 26 American defendants accused of kidnapping an Egyptian terrorist suspect.
The trial, which has been an irritant in the historically robust U.S.-Italy relationship and coincides with the planned arrival in Rome of President Bush, was not expected to start in earnest, however.
The government has asked Italy’s highest court to throw out indictments against 26 Americans — all but one of them believed to be CIA agents — accused of abducting Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003.
The Constitutional Court is expected to consider that and another similar appeal in the autumn, and participants in the trial said they expected defense requests to postpone the trial until after the high court rules.
Italians also indicted
In addition to the Americans, seven Italians were also indicted in the case, including Nicolo Pollari, the former chief of military intelligence. Pollari, who was not present Friday, has denied any involvement by Italian intelligence in the abduction.
Pollari’s lawyer, Titta Madia, said Friday he would ask for an immediate suspension of the proceedings pending the Constitutional Court ruling, so that both sides know which evidence can be used.
“It is in our interest that the trial proceeds as quickly as possible,” Madia told reporters before the hearing began. “In general, Pollari would like to arrive at an acquittal as soon as possible, but we need to have certainty about which evidence we can use.”
A trial has the potential to publicly air details about the U.S. renditions — moving terrorism suspects from country to country without public legal proceedings — a consequence that has been heralded by critics of the practice. It also has the power to embarrass the intelligence community over the handling of a highly secret operation.
Italian defendant Luciano di Gregori, who worked at the Italian intelligence agency at the time of the abduction, professed his innocence during a break in Friday’s hearing.
“I have been doing this work for 33 years,” he told reporters. “I did it with my head held high and in the full light of day. I have nothing to hide.”
Man allegedly taken to U.S. bases, Egypt
Italian prosecutors say Nasr — suspected of recruiting fighters for radical Islamic causes but who had not been charged with any crime at the time of his disappearance — was taken to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being transferred to Egypt, where he was imprisoned for four years. Nasr, who was released Feb. 11, said he was tortured.
Nasr’s lawyer traveled from Cairo to attend the opening; prosecutors have listed Nasr on their list of more than 120 witnesses.
Nasr’s Italian lawyer, Carmelo Scambia, said his client wanted to travel to Italy to participate in the trial, despite a pending arrest warrant issued against him by Italian authorities after he was taken to Egypt.
“He has declared he wants to be present for the proceedings,” Scambia said, although he added that Nasr was having trouble obtaining the necessary travel documents in Egypt.
Lawyers for Pollari have included on their witness list former Premier Silvio Berlusconi — who was in office at the time of Nasr’s disappearance — and current Premier Romano Prodi, lawyers involved in the case said. The same request was denied by a different judge during the preliminary hearing phase.
U.S., Italy ties strained
The 26 Americans have left Italy, and a senior U.S. official has said they would not be turned over for prosecution even if Rome requests it. Prodi’s government has so far not made a decision.
The timing of the trial’s opening date could not be worse, happening as Bush arrives Friday for talks on Saturday with the pope and Italy’s premier and president.
Relations between Rome and Washington also have been strained by the trial of a U.S. soldier accused of killing an Italian intelligence officer in Baghdad in 2005 as well as Italy’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq and reluctance to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan.