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CIA get longer terms in imam snatch appeal

But proceedings to start over for three

15 December, 18:22
CIA get longer terms in imam snatch appeal (ANSA) - Milan, December 15 - A Milan appeals court on Wednesday increased prison sentences for 23 CIA agents found guilty of abducting a Muslim cleric from Milan in 2003.

In the closely watched trial, the world's first judicial examination of the controversial United States practice of extraordinary rendition, the agents' terms were lengthened from 5-8 years to 7-9 years.

Former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady was among those who received nine years.

The prosecution had sought convictions ranging from eight to 12 years for the 23.

But the CIA's former Italy chief, Jeff Castelli, was excluded from the proceedings at the last minute on a technicality along with two other operatives, Betnie Medero and Ralph Russomando.

For the three, acquitted at the first trial in November 2009 on the grounds of diplomatic immunity, the appeals process will now have to start all over again.

The prosecutor in the trial had requested a 12-year sentence for Castelli and eight years for the other two.

The court also ordered the 23 CIA officers to pay one million euros in damages to the former Milan imam, Hassan Mustafa Omar Nasr, and 500,000 euros to his wife. Italy's top two former military intelligence officers, former SISMI (now AISE) chief Nicolo' Pollari and his ex-No.2 Marco Mancini, were again acquitted on appeal because of a state-secrecy injunction.

The prosecutor had sought 12 years for Pollari and 10 for Mancini.

Three other ex-SISMI officers who benefited from state-secrecy norms also again benefitted, while the only two former SISMI officers convicted a year ago, lower-ranking officers Pio Pompa and Luciano Seno, saw their sentences cut from three years to two years and eight months.

None of the CIA operatives have ever appeared in court here.

Nasr, an Islamist wanted in Italy on suspicion of recruiting jihadi fighters, disappeared from a Milan street on February 17, 2003 and emerged from an Egyptian prison four years later claiming he had been tortured.

The cleric, who is also known as Abu Omar, did not attend the trial.

Prosecutors said he was snatched by a team of CIA operatives with SISMI's help and taken to a NATO base in Ramstein, Germany, en route to Cairo.

US-ITALIAN FRICTION.

The case had caused friction between Italy and the United States, which voiced its "disappointment" with last year's verdict.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he sympathised with US concerns, noting that the judiciary in Italy was independent but despite this, the Italian government had obtained the secrecy injunction.

Some of the agents had said they were worried they would become international fugitives but Frattini said: "I don't think those US operatives will go to jail".

Extraordinary rendition was first authorised by Bill Clinton in the 1990s and stepped up when George W. Bush declared war on terror after the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al-Qaeda.

Successive Italian governments denied all knowledge of the case and consistently ruled out the possibility of extradition.

During the trial the CIA refused to comment and its officers were silent until Lady, the ex-Milan chief, told an Italian daily in August 2009 that he was only following orders.

Lady, who has now retired, said from an undisclosed location that he was ''a soldier...in a war against terrorism''.

The trial of Nasr claimed headlines worldwide and stoked discussion of rendition, which was extended by President Barack Obama in 2008 under the proviso that detainees' rights should be respected.

The Council of Europe, a 47-nation human rights body, called Nasr's case a "perfect example of rendition".