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CIA convicted in cleric rendition

Milan court gives 5-8 years for 22, immunity for 3

04 November, 18:17
(by Denis Greenan.) (ANSA) - Milan, November 4 - An Italian judge on Wednesday convicted 22 CIA agents and a US Air Force colonel in absentia for the abduction of a Milan-based Egyptian cleric in 2003.

In the first, long-awaited verdict on the controversial US practice of 'extraordinary rendition', they received sentences ranging from five to eight years.

But the top US defendant, former CIA Milan station chief Jeff Castelli, saw his diplomatic immunity plea granted.

Two other CIA agents, Betnie Medero and Ralph Russomando, were also granted immunity while two top Italian ex-spies were acquitted because of state secrecy norms.

Among those found guilty were the CIA's ex-Rome station chief Robert Seldon Lady and a former US consular official prosecutors say was an undercover agent, Sabrina De Sousa.

The former head of Italian military intelligence SISMI, Nicolo' Pollari, and his ex-No.2, Marco Mancini, were acquitted but two other ex-SISMI agents, Pio Pompa and Luciano Seno, were found guilty of aiding and abetting. Prosecutor Armando Spataro had sought 13 years for Castelli and Pollari; 12 years for Lady and De Sousa; 11 for the agents who actually snatched Nasr; and ten for Mancini.

Despite not securing all his convictions, Spataro said he felt vindicated by the result of the trial.

''The verdicts have established the truth uncovered by our investigation,'' he said.

Defence lawyers had argued they were unable to defend their clients because of a state secrecy injunction obtained by the Italian government.

The Americans have never been in any danger of extradition, the US and Italy have repeatedly stressed.

The rendition victim, Hassan Mustafa Omar Nasr, was awarded a provisional one million euros in damages from each of the convicted, while his wife was awarded a provisional 500,000 euros.

The eventual size of the damages will be determined by a later civil trial, the judge said. Nasr, who is also known as Abu Omar, did not attend the trial because he was unable to leave Egypt.

But he says he wants to return to Italy despite an ongoing probe into his alleged association with an Islamist group.

Nasr disappeared from a Milan street in February 2003 and emerged from an Egyptian prison four years later, after a brief parole in 2004.


The trial has caused friction between the US and Italian intelligence communities.

It has also seen a tussle between prosecutors and the Italian government, which obtained a Constitutional Court ruling that some evidence was covered by state secrecy norms.

During the two-year trial ago the CIA refused to comment and its officers were silent until Lady, the ex-Rome chief, told an Italian daily this summer that he was only following orders.

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

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor Romano Prodi obtained a Constitutional Court ruling in March that forced prosecutors to do without swathes of evidence.

The ruling also exempted Berlusconi and Prodi from testifying.

Italian governments have denied any role in Nasr's disappearance.

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

The Council of Europe has called Nasr's case a ''perfect example of rendition''.

The imam disappeared from the northern Italian city on February 17, 2003.

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

From there they say he was taken to Egypt to be interrogated.

Berlusconi was in power at the time of the abduction.

Prodi succeeded him in 2006 but was defeated by him two years later.

The CIA was first granted permission to use rendition in a presidential directive signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and the practice grew sharply after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

photo: Nasr on his release in 2007

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