Italian High Court Upholds Convictions as Washington Closes the Book on Abuse Cases
September 20, 2012
US officials should be deeply embarrassed that the Italian government had the courage to do what the Obama administration has not – hold people accountable for torture. Abu Omar is just one of many victims of the CIA’s rendition program, and there are many other cases that need to be investigated.
Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel

(Milan) – The ruling by Italy’s highest court to uphold convictions against 23 United States agents stands in stark contrast to the US failure to prosecute any official involved in the Central Intelligence Agency’s unlawful rendition program. On September 19, 2012, the Supreme Court of Cassation upheld convictions against 22 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents and one Air Force officer in the February 2003 abduction of an Egyptian imam known as Abu Omar.

“The Obama administration should take the Italian ruling as a signal that other countries will not let US officials off the hook for torture and illegal rendition,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Since the US Justice Department appears entirely unwilling to investigate and prosecute these very serious crimes, other countries should move forward with their own cases against US officials.”

On November 4, 2009, an Italian criminal court had convicted the 23 Americans in absentiaalong with two Italian nationals.

The Italian court decision highlights the US government’s complete failure to hold CIA agents and senior officials accountable for the numerous, well-documented allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and unlawful renditions committed during the George W. Bush administration, Human Rights Watch said. Only a few low-ranking military personnel have received prison terms.

On August 30, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the only criminal investigation the Justice Department had undertaken into alleged abuses in CIA custody, headed by special prosecutor John Durham, would be closed. This investigation resulted in no criminal charges, including in the cases of two detainees who died after apparent mistreatment while in US custody.

“US officials should be deeply embarrassed that the Italian government had the courage to do what the Obama administration has not – hold people accountable for torture,” Prasow said. “Abu Omar is just one of many victims of the CIA’s rendition program, and there are many other cases that need to be investigated.”

Abu Omar was kidnapped as he was walking down a Milan street on February 17, 2003. After his captors drove him to Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy, they allegedly put him on a plane and flew him to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and from there to Egypt. He alleges that he was tortured repeatedly during the nearly four years he was held in Egyptian custody. He was released from prison without charge in February 2007.

In December 2007, Abu Omar told Human Rights Watch that he was violently abused upon his arrival in Egypt. “You cannot imagine. … I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electric shocks,” he said. “I was brutally tortured and could hear the screams of others who were tortured too.”

Initially, Italian authorities charged 26 Americans, all but one of whom were alleged CIA agents, and seven Italians who were members of Italy’s military intelligence service, SISMI. A first ruling found that three of the 26 Americans were entitled to diplomatic immunity, and five of the Italians were shielded by state secrecy laws. According to media reports, the September 19 decision reversed the ruling about the Italian agents, finding they were not fully protected by Italian state secrecy laws, and ordered them to face a new trial. Human Rights Watch had disagreed with the trial court’s reading of diplomatic immunity protections on the basis that such immunity should not be interpreted to protect officials responsible for grave human rights crimes.

The Italian defendants in the case include Gen. Nicolo Pollari, former head of SISMI, who was forced to resign over Abu Omar’s abduction and rendition, and Pollari’s former deputy, Marco Mancini.

The American defendants include 22 alleged CIA operatives – including the former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, as well as US Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Romano, who was stationed at the Aviano military base in northeastern Italy at the time the events occurred. According to media reports, the court confirmed seven-year sentences for all those convicted except Lady who received nine years.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that trials in absentia do not afford defendants an adequate opportunity to present a defense as required under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Should Italian law enforcement authorities ever gain custody over the defendants, Human Rights Watch believes that the men should be granted a retrial.