Ex-CIA Officer Heads To U.S. After Italy Issues Warrant

Former CIA officer Robert Seldon Lady is on his way back to the U.S. after being briefly detained in Panama. An Italian court had convicted the agent in the first trial anywhere involving the practice known as extraordinary rendition, in which a terrorist suspect is kidnapped and transferred to a country where torture is practiced.

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Now, to the strange case of a former CIA officer who was briefly detained this week in Panama. He's now on his way back to the U.S. And his nation-hopping story begins in Italy where he was convicted for his alleged role in what's called extraordinary rendition. It was the first trial of its kind for the practice in which a terrorist suspect is kidnapped and then transferred to a country where torture is practiced.

Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Former CIA agent Robert Seldon Lady was detained yesterday on an international arrest warrant issued by Italy. Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri cut short a foreign trip to return to Rome and prepare the necessary papers for Lady's transfer to Italy.

News of his speedy release from Panama and return to the U.S. was seen by commentators as a slap in the face of the Italian government. Lady had been convicted together with 22 other Americans, mostly CIA agents, for the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan. The man known as Abu Omar was a terrorist suspect. His abductors first took him to the Aviano NATO base then flew him to Egypt, where he later said he'd been tortured in prison.

Lady was the Milan CIA station chief who ran the operation that was expensive and sloppy according to court documents. The CIA agents and their Italian intelligence partners were tracked down, thanks to the many clues they left behind - cellphone calls made at the scene of the abduction and at the Aviano base, and credit card receipts for car rentals and hotel bills totaling more than $150,000.

The others found guilty for the kidnapping include the Rome CIA station chief at the time and Italy's former military intelligence chief, Nicolo Pollari, sentenced to 10 years in prison, although he is still free. Prosecutors told the court the agents' carelessness derived from their sense of impunity. A few months before his conviction, Lady told an Italian newspaper, of course, it was an illegal operation, but that's our job. We're at war against terrorism.

The Abu Omar extraordinary rendition has long been a thorn in relations between NATO allies Italy and the United States. Successive Italian governments, both on the left and right, were concerned the case could harm bilateral relations. And it was not until last December, after Italy's highest court confirmed the convictions, that the justice ministry issued an arrest warrant only for Lady, who had received the longest jail term, nine years. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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