(Milan) - The verdict expected Wednesday in a landmark case may present a historic legal challenge to the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) rendition program, Human Rights Watch said today.
The trial in Milan of 26 Americans in absentia and seven Italians for the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian imam began in 2007.
The Italian justice system's vigorous prosecution of abusive CIA rendition operations stands in stark contrast to the inactivity of the US Department of Justice. Although the Obama administration has opened a preliminary investigation of CIA interrogation abuses, the review is narrowly focused and does not cover CIA renditions or senior Bush administration officials most responsible for abuses.
"There should be dozens of CIA rendition cases in the US courts, but unfortunately there are none," said Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch. "By meticulously investigating the facts and surmounting formidable obstacles, Italian prosecutors have set an example that US prosecutors should follow."
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, was abducted as he was walking down the street in Milan on February 17, 2003 in what is believed to have been a joint operation by the CIA and Italian military intelligence. After being driven by his captors to Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy, Abu Omar was allegedly put on a plane and flown to Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, and from there to Egypt.
In a December 2007 interview, Abu Omar told Human Rights Watch that he was violently abused upon his arrival in Egypt. "You cannot imagine," he said. "I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks."
"I was brutally tortured," he continued, "and I could hear the screams of others who were tortured too."
While in one prison in Egypt, Abu Omar wrote an 11-page letter that described his torture in graphic detail. He was finally released from prison without charge in February 2007.
An Italian court issued indictments against those believed responsible for the cleric's abduction in June 2005, but the case moved forward slowly, in part because successive Italian governments viewed the prosecution as a hindrance to Italian-US relations. Notably, both the Berlusconi and Prodi governments refused to seek the extradition of the 26 Americans being prosecuted in the case.
The Italian government also tried to block the case by challenging much of the evidence that implicated the defendants in the case, claiming that its use could endanger national security. In March 2009, in an important setback for the prosecution, Italy's Constitutional Court barred much of this evidence from being admitted at trial, ruling that it was protected by the state secrets doctrine.
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 Milan CIA 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 at the time the events occurred.
In his closing argument, the lead Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, called for long sentences for a number of the defendants, including a term of 13 years in prison without parole for Castelli and Pollari, and 12 years for Lady.
The seven Italian defendants in the case are being tried in person, while the 26 American defendants, including 25 alleged CIA agents, are being tried in absentia. Most of the American defendants have court-appointed Italian lawyers, but two of them, Romano and Sabrina De Sousa, have hired private counsel.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that trials in absentia do not afford defendants an adequate opportunity to present a defense as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Should the Italian law enforcement authorities ever gain custody over the American defendants, Human Rights Watch believes that they should be granted a retrial.
During the Bush administration, responsibility for the CIA's rendition program lay at the highest levels of government. In the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a classified presidential directive giving the CIA expanded authority to arrest, interrogate, detain, and render terrorist suspects arrested abroad. During Bush's two terms in office, the US is believed to have rendered terrorism suspects to the custody of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Libya, and Syria, and other countries.
The exact number of people rendered by the CIA to foreign custody since 2001 is unknown. Then CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed in a 2007 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations that fewer than 100 people had been rendered abroad since the September 11 attacks: "mid-range two figures," he said.
"The CIA's rendition program should be on trial in the United States," Mariner said. "It's not too late for the Obama administration to follow the Italian prosecutors' lead and launch serious criminal investigations."