By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
MILAN, Italy – An appeals court in Milan has vacated acquittals for the former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) in Italy and two agents, and instead convicted them in absentia for the 2003 kidnaping and torture of an Egyptian cleric and terror suspect, Abu Omar, as part of the C.I.A.’s extraordinary rendition program.
C.I.A. Rome station chief, Jeffrey Castelli, and C.I.A. agents Betnie Medero and Ralph Russomando were originally acquitted by a lower court in November 2009 on diplomatic immunity grounds. However, the Milan appeals court, upon reversing the decision after prosecutors appealed, sentenced Castelli to 7 years, and Medero and Russomando to 6 years each.
Twenty-three others were convicted in 2009 in relation to the abduction, including Milan C.I.A. station chief, Robert Seldon Lady, twenty-one C.I.A. agents, and an air force pilot. Seldon was ultimately sentenced to 9 years in prison and the remaining agents and pilot each ultimately received a sentence of 7 years. They convictions were upheld by Italy’s high court last September, which stiffened the sentences. However, having long since fled Italy, none of the convicted has ever been in Italian custody and they will likely never serve prison time. Yet, they could risk arrest if visiting Europe. Furthermore, the Italian government has never formally sought their extraditions.
The appeals against Castelli and the two agent’s acquittals were separated from the other convictions in the higher courts for technical reasons. While the court is expected to release its reasoning in 15 days, Medero’s defense lawyer, Alessia Sorgato, claims the decision noted extenuating circumstances. She believes that the court found that “they acted on orders of a superior.” She may decide to appeal after reading the court’s reasoning.
The appeals court’s decision means that every one of the 26 Americans tried in absentia for the abduction has now been found guilty by an Italian court. U.S. extraordinary rendition practice, instituted during the presidency of George W. Bush, is generally tolerated in Europe. The cases represent the first time that agents of the C.I.A. have been convicted for extradition and conduct allegedly leading to torture.
The 2003 abduction was a joint operation coordinated by the C.I.A. and Italy’s Military Intelligence and Security Service (S.I.S.M.I.). Five former members of S.I.S.M.I. were charged in 2009, but acquitted due to state secrets. In September, the Italian high court ordered a new trial of the former S.I.S.M.I. agents, finding that state secrecy had been used as an illegitimate ‘cover’ for immunity.
As for Abu Omar, whose full name is Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, he was an Egyptian Muslim cleric, or imam, who had moved to Italy seeking political asylum. However, he became one of the most well documented suspects in the C.I.A.’s extraordinary rendition program. On Feb. 17, 2003, when walking on a Milan street near his Viale Jenner mosque, Nasr was grabbed by a group of men, tossed in a van, and driven to NATO’s Aviano Air Base. From there, he was transferred to Germany and then flown to Egypt, where Nasr claims he was tortured for seven months. Nasr continued to be held without formal charges until 2007, when he was released by an Egyptian court.
The CIA has declined to comment on the decision of the Milan appeals court.
Amnesty International has expressed its hope that the ruling will shed light on C.I.A. tactics of the Bush presidency. Julia Hall, Amnesty’s expert on counterterrorism and human rights said, “Many European governments are deeply implicated in the rendition and secret detention program and any court attempting to find out the truth about these practices is welcomed.”
For further information, please see:
Al Jazeera – Jail Term for Ex-CIA Rome Chief – 2 February 2013
Politico – Milan Court Convicts 3 Americans in CIA Kidnapping – 2 February 2013
ABC News – Italian Court Convicts 3 Americans in CIA Kidnapping Case – 1 February 2013
Corriere Della Sera – Caso Abu Omar, Condannato a Sette Anni l’Ex Capo Della CIA in Italia [Abu Omar Case, The Former Head of the CIA in Italy Sentenced to Seven Years] – 1 February 2013
Global Post – Former CIA head in Italy convicted for imam kidnap – 1 February 2013
NBC News – Italian court convicts 3 Americans in CIA kidnapping – 1 February 2013
New York Times – Italian Court Convicts 3 Americans in Kidnapping Case – 1 February 2013