The alleged kidnappers of an Egyptian cleric in 2003 will go on trial in Milan on April 16 in what is the first ever legal challenge to the CIA’s controversial rendition program, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the newly-elected Italian government to seek the extradition of 26 American CIA agents implicated in the abduction.

CIA and Italian military intelligence personnel are believed responsible for abducting Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who is known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street on February 17, 2003. He was then transferred to Egypt, where, Nasr claims, he was badly tortured in detention.

An Italian court issued indictments against those responsible for the cleric’s abduction in June 2005, but the case has moved slowly in part because successive Italian governments have apparently viewed the prosecution as a hindrance to Italian-US relations. It has so far refused to seek the extradition of the 26 Americans who have been charged in the case.

“The new Italian government should reconsider past refusals to request the extradition of the 26 Americans,” said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “It should show the world that Italy does not give get-out-of-jail-free cards to kidnappers.”

Nasr, after his release from prison in February 2007, described his treatment by the Egyptian intelligence services to a Human Rights Watch researcher. “You cannot imagine,” he said. “I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks.”

A new Human Rights Watch report, “Double Jeopardy: CIA Renditions to Jordan”, gives a detailed account of the CIA’s practice of rendering terrorism suspects abroad. The report describes how the CIA outsourced the detention and abusive interrogation of terrorist suspects to Jordan and other countries. An earlier Human Rights Watch report, “Black Hole: The Fate of Islamists Rendered to Egypt”, documents the abuses that detainees transferred to Egypt have endured.

“The CIA’s rendition program should be on trial in the United States,” Mariner said. “But since the US Department of Justice has utterly failed in its responsibility to investigate and prosecute these serious crimes, it is up to Italy to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

The Milan prosecution involves seven Italian defendants, who are being tried in person, and 26 American defendants, who are being tried in absentia. Human Rights Watch is concerned that trials in absentia do not afford defendants an adequate opportunity to present a defense.

The Italian defendants include Gen. Nicolò Pollari, the former head of SISMI, Italy’s military intelligence service, who was forced to resign over Abu Omar’s abduction and rendition, and Pollari’s former deputy, Marco Mancini.

The American defendants consist of 25 alleged CIA operatives – including former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady and former Rome CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli – 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.

Besides shedding light on the kidnapping itself, the trial may also highlight the ineffectiveness of the diplomatic assurances that the US government says it receives from states to which it renders suspected terrorists.

The United Nations Committee against Torture held in the case of Agiza v. Sweden that Sweden violated the Convention against Torture when it assisted in the CIA’s rendition to Egypt of Egyptian asylum seeker Ahmed Agiza in December 2001. The Committee found that “it was known, or should have been known, to [Sweden]’s authorities at the time of [Agiza]’s removal that Egypt resorted to consistent and widespread use of torture against detainees, and that the risk of such treatment was particularly high in the case of detainees held for political and security reasons.”