Panama Releases Ex-CIA Figure Wanted for Rendition
July 20, 2013
Italy made history as the first country to put officials on trial – and convict them – for unlawful rendition to torture. Despite the missed opportunity, Italy should see the process of accountability it started through to the end.
Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher

(Milan) – Italy should continue its efforts to obtain justice for abuses by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), despite Panama’s decision to free a former CIA Milan station chief wanted by Italy.

Media reports indicated that Panamanian authorities detained Robert Seldon Lady at the border with Costa Rica on July 18, 2013, but released him the next day. Lady was convicted in absentia in Italy over the abduction of an Egyptian cleric in 2003. 

“Italy made history as the first country to put officials on trial – and convict them – for unlawful rendition to torture,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the missed opportunity, Italy should see the process of accountability it started through to the end.”

The ruling by Italy’s highest court stands in stark contrast to the US failure to prosecute any officials involved in the CIA’s unlawful rendition program after the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, Human Rights Watch said.

Italy’s highest criminal jurisdiction, the Supreme Court of Cassation, upheld Lady’s conviction in September 2012, and sentenced him to nine years in prison for his role in the abduction and rendition. In February 2003, an Egyptian cleric, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr – better known as Abu Omar – was abducted and sent to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. Abu Omar was hustled off the streets of Milan into a van and flown from the US Air Force base in Aviano, Italy to Egypt via Ramstein Air Force base in Germany.

All 23 US citizens convicted in this case were tried in absentia under procedures that were amended to afford in absentia defendants greater rights following a 1985 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The Court of Cassation, in its September 2012 ruling, determined that the defendants in this case had all the necessary rights to an effective defense. Lady was represented by his own privately hired counsel. 

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 fair trial standards. Should Italian law enforcement authorities gain custody over Lady, or any of the other defendants, they should have the right to ask the Italian courts for a new trial, Human Rights Watch said.

Abu Omar 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.”

On August 30, 2012, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the only criminal investigation the Justice Department had undertaken into alleged abuses in CIA custody would be closed. The investigation was headed by John Durham, a special prosecutor. This investigation resulted in no criminal charges, including in the cases of two detainees who died after apparent mistreatment in US custody.

The US government has exerted pressure on Italy in the Abu Omar case. As a result, in April 2013, President Giorgio Napolitano pardoned a US Air Force colonel, Joseph Romano, for his role in the rendition. Romano, who was in charge of security at the Aviano Air Force Base in 2003, had been sentenced to seven years in prison.

“The US has so far obstructed accountability for torture in its ‘war on terror’ in every possible way,” Sunderland said. “We had hoped Panamanian justice officials would judge any Italian request for Lady’s extradition on its merits.”

Italy issued an international arrest warrant for Lady in December 2012, due to the length of his sentence. Though sentenced to nine years, Lady would only serve six years in prison due to automatic reductions under Italian sentencing guidelines.

Lady was first convicted, in absentia, on November 4, 2009, along with 22 other US nationals and two Italian nationals. The court at that time found that three other US citizens, including the former Italy CIA chief Jeff Castelli, were entitled to diplomatic immunity, and that five of the Italians were shielded by state secrecy laws. The September 2012 ruling by the Court of Cassation reversed the ruling about the Italian agents, finding that they were not fully protected by Italian state secrecy laws, and ordered them to face a new trial.

Human Rights Watch had taken issue with the court’s rulings on diplomatic immunity and state secrecy protections on the basis that such immunity should not be interpreted to protect officials responsible for grave human rights abuses.

In February 2013, the Milan Appeals Court sentenced Castelli to seven years in prison, and two other CIA agents previously considered covered by diplomatic immunity to six years. The court also sentenced Nicolò Pollari, the former head of the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI), to ten years, the former SISMI deputy head Marco Mancini to nine years, and three SISMI agents to six years each.