Italian Judge Convicts 23 Americans In Kidnap Case

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An Italian judge has found 23 Americans and two Italians guilty of the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric from Milan. The Americans were convicted in absentia. The trial was the first in the world on extraordinary rendition. That's the CIA practice of capturing terrorism suspects in one country and taking them for questioning to another, where torture is often practiced.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

An Italian judge has delivered the first-ever convictions, including convictions against Americans, for extraordinary rendition. That's the CIA practice of going around normal extradition laws. Terrorism suspects were captured in one country and transported to another for questioning. In 2003, an Egyptian cleric was grabbed in Italy. He says he was taken to Cairo and tortured in prison. Now, a court has convicted two Italians and 23 Americans, who were tried even though they didn't show up.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Milan.

Judge OSCAR MAGI (Milan, Italy): (Italian spoken)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Reading out the names of the defendants, Judge Oscar Magi handed down his verdict. The stiffest sentence, eight years, went to the former Milan station chief, Robert Seldon Lady. Another 22 Americans were each given five years in prison. Two Italian members of the secret services were sentenced to three years. Joanne Mariner, counterterrorism expert at Human Rights Watch, hailed the verdict.

Ms. JOANNE MARINER (Counterterrorism Expert, Human Rights Watch): It's been a historic judgment. I mean, this is the first case in which the war on terror has been on trial, and I think the judge issued a strikingly powerful repudiation of the war on terror crimes committed by the CIA.

POGGIOLI: The trial has been politically charged. It began nearly three years ago and was obstructed by successive Italian governments, both on the left and the right. Officials saw it as harmful to U.S.-Italian relations and cited state secrecy to try to stop the trial. In March, the constitutional court ruled that the prosecution's evidence demonstrating the links between the U.S. and Italian secret services was classified and could not be used.

Judge Magi cited this impediment as the reason for acquitting the two top Italian defendants, the former head of the Italian military intelligence agency and his deputy. He also cited diplomatic immunity for the acquittal of three Americans, including the former Rome CIA station chief, Jeff Castelli. Chief Prosecutor Armando Spataro hailed the verdicts as very courageous, sending a strong message to all governments that basic rights cannot be ignored in the fight against terrorism.

Mr. ARMANDO SPATARO (Chief Prosecutor, Italy): (Through translator) It is extremely important that this trial was brought to a final conclusion and that it confirmed the truth of the facts that emerged in our investigation and presentation in court.

POGGIOLI: The prosecution had charged 26 Americans and seven Italians with a 2003 kidnapping on a Milan street of the cleric known as Abu Omar. The cleric, who had been under investigation for terrorism, says he was blindfolded and was taken to Cairo, where he says he was brutally tortured in prison. The prosecution showed that the operation was very sloppy. The CIA suspects were tracked down thanks to cell phone calls made from near the abduction site and hotel credit card payments, as well as tickets for speeding.

Prosecutors said the agent's carelessness was a sign they believed they could operate with impunity. None of the American defendants are likely to serve jail time. Prosecutor Spataro said he's considering the possibility of seeking the extradition of the American defendants, who were tried in their absence and were represented by court-appointed lawyers. But he's not optimistic. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the Obama administration is disappointed with the verdicts. Spataro, nevertheless, says that under the Obama administration, Europeans and Americans will be able to cooperate fruitfully in combating terrorism.

Mr. SPATARO: (Through translator) I'm convinced that the Obama administration is absolutely opposed to these illegal practices. Attorney General Eric Holder has himself said these practices will no longer be allowed. I believe this verdict is in line with the Obama administration's human rights policies.

POGGIOLI: Spataro and his European colleagues clashed repeatedly with the Bush administration over antiterrorism methods. They say that in a continent with large Muslim minorities, illegal practices such as extraordinary renditions nourish extremism and undermine trust in the democratic system.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Milan.

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