An Italian judge found 23 Americans and two Italians guilty Wednesday in the kidnapping of an Egyptian terror suspect, delivering the first legal convictions anywhere in the world against people involved in the CIA's extraordinary renditions program.
Human rights groups hailed the decision and pressed President Barack Obama to repudiate the Bush administration's practice of abducting terror suspects and transferring them to third countries where torture was permitted. The American Civil Liberties Union said the verdicts were the first convictions stemming from the rendition program.
The Obama administration ended the CIA's interrogation program and shuttered its secret overseas jails in January but has opted to continue the practice of extraordinary renditions.
The Americans, who were tried in absentia, now cannot travel to Europe without risking arrest as long as the verdicts remains in place.
One of those convicted, former Milan consular official Sabrina De Sousa, accused Congress of turning a blind eye to the entire matter.
"No one has investigated the fact that the U.S. government allegedly conducted a rendition of an individual who now walks free and the operation of which was so bungled," she said, speaking through her lawyer Mark Zaid.
Despite the convictions capping the nearly three-year Italian trial, several Italian and American defendants — including the two alleged masterminds of the abduction — were acquitted due to either diplomatic immunity or because classified information was stricken by Italy's highest court.
The case has been politically charged from the beginning, with attempts to mislead investigators looking into the cleric's disappearance and derail the judicial proceedings once the trial was under way. But the Italian-American relationship, conditioned on such issues as participation in the Afghan campaign, is unlikely to be hurt by the convictions.
Three Americans were acquitted, including the then-Rome CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli and two other diplomats formerly assigned to the Rome Embassy, as well as the former head of Italian military intelligence Nicolo Pollari and four other Italian secret service agents.
Only two Italians were in the courtroom to hear the verdict, including Marco Mancini, the former No. 2 at Italian military intelligence, who embraced his lawyer outside the courtroom after he was acquitted.
Former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady received the top sentence of eight years in prison. The other 22 convicted American defendants, including De Sousa and Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Romano, each received a five-year sentence. Two Italians got three years each as accessories.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the Obama administration was "disappointed about the verdicts."
The State Department is being sued by De Sousa, a former State Department employee who denies she was a CIA agent and who believes she should have been granted diplomatic immunity by U.S. officials. The judge's verdict, however, did not extend diplomatic immunity to consular officials charged.
Zaid, De Sousa's American lawyer, told The Associated Press in Washington: "The Italian conviction merely confirms the U.S. government's betrayal of our diplomatic and military representatives overseas."
Romano, who was one of only two Americans who received permission to hire his own lawyer, had tried to have the jurisdiction moved to a U.S. military court in the last weeks of the trial.
"We are clearly disappointed by the court's ruling," Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell told a Pentagon press conference Wednesday.
The Americans, all but one identified by prosecutors as CIA agents, were tried in absentia as subsequent Italian governments refused or ignored prosecutors' extradition request — a position that casts doubts on the Italian government's political will to enforce the sentences.
Prosecutor Armando Spataro said he was considering asking Rome to issue international arrest warrants for the fugitive Americans on the strength of the convictions. The government of Silvio Berlusconi, a close ally of President George W. Bush, has previously refused.
The Americans and Italian agents were accused of kidnapping Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, on Feb. 17, 2003, in Milan, then transferring him to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany. He was then moved to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. He has since been released, but has not been permitted to leave Egypt to attend the trial.
Spataro had sought stiffer sentences ranging from 10 to 13 years in jail, citing a conspiracy between U.S. and Italian secret services to abduct Nasr, who was under surveillance by Italian investigators building their own terror case against him. Nasr was suspected of organizing the movement of would-be suicide bombers to the Middle East, and Spataro noted in his closing arguments that the timing of his CIA-led abduction, as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, indicated his potential importance.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said at his confirmation hearing in February that the administration would continue the practice of rendition for prisoners captured in the war on terrorism, but promised to get assurances first that prisoners would not be tortured or have their human rights violated once transferred.
The CIA declined to comment on the convictions.