Back in 2009 when Italy convicted a number of CIA officials in absentia for abducting a cleric and sending him off to Egypt where he was severely tortured, no one thought that the CIA officials would ever face the music. That may change with the arrest in Panama on July 18 of Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA station chief in Milan. It’s a landmark moment on the path toward accountability for abuses committed by the US in its counterterrorism strategies after 9/11.
Media reports indicate that Lady was detained by Panamanian authorities at the border with Costa Rica. Italy had issued an international arrest warrant in December 2012.
Lady was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the abduction and rendition of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr – better known as Abu Omar – to Egypt in 2003. The conviction and sentence (increased to nine years by the Appeals Court in 2010) were upheld by Italy’s highest criminal court in September 2012.
Abu Omar was kidnapped off the streets of Milan and flown from the US Air force base in Aviano, Italy to Egypt via the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. 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.”
Italy’s quest for accountability stands in stark contrast to the failure by other European governments to hold any senior officials accountable for torture and other abuses conducted in the name of counterterrorism. Eleven other European countries – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and the UK – are alleged to have taken part to various degrees in the illegal CIA rendition program. Despite repeated calls from the European Parliament and Council of Europe rights bodies for full investigations, to date governments have avoided, stalled, or shut down attempts to hold virtually anyone to account.
With the exception of several low-level military personnel, the US has failed to hold anyone to account for counterterrorism abuses. In August 2012 US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the only criminal investigation the Justice Department had undertaken into alleged abuses in CIA custody, headed by the special prosecutor John Durham, would be closed. This investigation resulted in no criminal charges, including in the case of two detainees who died after apparent mistreatment in US custody.