MILAN – An Italian judge found 23 Americans and two Italians guilty Wednesday in the kidnapping of an Egyptian terror suspect, delivering the first legal convictions anywhere in the world against people involved in the CIA’s extraordinary renditions program.
Human rights groups hailed the decision and pressed President Barack Obama to repudiate the Bush administration’s practice of abducting terror suspects and transferring them to third countries where torture was permitted.
The Obama administration ended the CIA’s interrogation program and shuttered its secret overseas jails in January but has opted to continue the practice of extraordinary renditions.
The Americans, who were tried in absentia, now cannot travel to Europe without risking arrest as long as the verdict remains in place.
Despite the convictions capping the nearly three-year Italian trial, several Italian and American defendants – including the two alleged masterminds of the abduction – were acquitted due to either diplomatic immunity or because classified information was stricken by Italy’s highest court.
The case has been politically charged from the beginning, with attempts to mislead investigators looking into the cleric’s disappearance and derail the judicial proceedings once the trial was under way. But the Italian-American relationship, conditioned on such issues as participation in the Afghan campaign, is unlikely to be hurt by the convictions. The American Civil Liberties Union said the verdicts were the first convictions stemming from the rendition program.
Three Americans were acquitted, including the then-Rome CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli and two other diplomats formerly assigned to the Rome Embassy, as well as the former head of Italian military intelligence Nicolo Pollari and four other Italian secret service agents.
Only two Italians were in the courtroom to hear the verdict, including Marco Mancini, the former No. 2 at Italian military intelligence, who embraced his lawyer outside the courtroom after he was acquitted.
Former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady received the top sentence of eight years in prison. The other 22 convicted American defendants, including a former Milan consular official, Sabrina De Sousa and Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Romano, each received a five-year sentence. Two Italians got three years each as accessories.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the Obama administration was “disappointed about the verdicts.”
The State Department is being sued by De Sousa, a former State Department employee who denies she was a CIA agent and who believes she should have been granted diplomatic immunity by U.S. officials. The judge’s verdict, however, did not extend diplomatic immunity to consular officials charged.
Mark Zaid, the American lawyer for De Sousa, told the Associated Press in Washington: “The Italian conviction merely confirms the U.S. government’s betrayal of our diplomatic and military representatives overseas.”
Romano, who was one of only two Americans who received permission to hire his own lawyer, had tried to have the jurisdiction moved to a U.S. military court in the last weeks of the trial.