In a landmark case, twenty-three Americans, mostly CIA operatives, have been convicted in Italy for kidnapping a Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003. They were all tried in absentia after the United States refused to hand them over. The convictions turn them into international fugitives who risk arrest abroad. The case marks the first time any American has been convicted for taking part in a so-called "extraordinary rendition." We go to Rome to speak with the Italian prosecutor who brought the case, Armando Spataro, and get comment from international law and human rights attorney Scott Horton. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In a landmark ruling, an Italian judge has convicted twenty-three Americans, mostly CIA operatives, for kidnapping a Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003. The former CIA base chief in Milan, Robert Seldon Lady, was sentenced to eight years in prison. The other Americans were given five-year sentences. The Americans were all tried in absentia after the United States refused to turn them over. The convictions turn the CIA agents into international fugitives who risk arrest abroad.
The case marks the first time any American has been convicted for taking part in a so-called “extraordinary rendition,” a practice the CIA has used, dating back to the Clinton administration, to kidnap wanted individuals anywhere in the world.
The Italian case centers around the Egyptian cleric Abu Omar. On February 17th, 2003, he was seized in broad daylight while walking in Milan. He was then taken to US bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt. He says he was tortured there during a four-year imprisonment. Abu Omar was never charged with a crime and ultimately set free. The CIA operatives convicted were charged only with involvement in Abu Omar’s abduction, not for his enforced disappearance or torture.
One of the CIA operatives convicted in the kidnapping spoke last night to ABC News.
SABRINA DE SOUSA: Clearly, we broke a law, and we’re paying for the mistakes right now of whoever authorized and approved this.
AMY GOODMAN: The former CIA operative Sabrina De Sousa also criticized how the US government handled the trial.
SABRINA DE SOUSA: I was assigned as a representative of this government, and I should have been protected.
BRIAN ROSS: But you now stand convicted, facing five years in prison.
SABRINA DE SOUSA: Mm-hmm. Yes.
BRIAN ROSS: That must sting.
SABRINA DE SOUSA: Mm-hmm, absolutely. It really is a sense of betrayal here. We’ve set a precedent for allies, foes, friends, anyone, to convict our officers overseas or indict them for whatever they feel like indicting them on.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Rome, where we’re joined by Armando Spataro. He’s the Italian prosecutor who brought the case. Here in our firehouse studio, we’re joined by Scott Horton, New York attorney specializing in international law and human rights, also a legal affairs contributor to Harper’s Magazine.
We go first to Rome to Armando Spataro. Your response to your victory, the verdicts in this case?
ARMANDO SPATARO: Can I speak? Sorry, I don’t understand. Can I speak?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, go ahead.
ARMANDO SPATARO: OK. Thank you. Good morning to you, and thank you for your communication.
It’s difficult for a prosecutor to say — to speak about a victory. It’s not my target. I think that it’s a victory for the justice, because the importance of this ruling is clear, according to my opinion — namely, our democracy don’t need absolutely, in fighting terrorism, to use an illegal instrument, as rendition, extraordinary and illegal rendition, that are clearly kidnappings. We don’t need to use torture, a secret prison. This is important, if you want to win this fight against the tragedy of the modern and international terrorism. This is my real opinion.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain why you brought this case. Most Americans have never heard of this case against, well, almost two dozen CIA agents.
ARMANDO SPATARO: I think that it’s important that the Americans could know the Italian system of law. According to this system, the prosecutors are absolutely independent by the political power. Not only according to our constitution, we are obliged to prosecute anyone for any crime news we know. And it’s clear that this is a guarantee for the independence of the prosecutor in charge, but also is a guarantee for the citizen, because they are all on the same plane before the justice. So, this is the reason for which we prosecuted not only American suspected now-sentenced people, but also against the Italian member of — senior four member of the Italian secret service. I think that our system is valid, and I hope it will remain on the same situation, also if our government in this time is starting to change the system.
AMY GOODMAN: Among those who were convicted was Robert Seldon Lady, the station chief in Milan. But Jeffrey Castelli, the station chief in Rome, was dropped from the case. This is the CIA, American CIA, station chief. Why?
ARMANDO SPATARO: I want to specify my great respect for the ruling of the Milan court. But I don’t agree on this decision, because I think the judge decided to give the diplomatic immunity to Jeff Castelli, not only to Jeff Castelli, but also to Medero Bernie and Russomando, Mr. Russomando.
It’s clear that we want to read the reason of the ruling, and the judge will give them public in ninety days. But it’s possible that when we will read the reason, the motivation of the sentence, it’s possible that we will appeal the acquittal for the diplomatic immunity of the three other defendant, included Jeff Castelli. But it’s clear that the judge didn’t acquit them. He wrote only that for the diplomatic immunity it was impossible to him to prosecute and probably to sentence them.
AMY GOODMAN: Prosecutor Spataro, why did the American CIA operatives not appear in the Milan court?
ARMANDO SPATARO: Sorry, can you repeat more strong? Sorry, the volume is so-so.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did the CIA operatives not appear in the Milan court?
ARMANDO SPATARO: Because they were fugitive. You have to know that in 2005, in July and in September, and after, in July 2006, the judge in Milano issued twenty-six arrest warrants against them. So, they were not arrested also, because they left Italy.
The prosecution office in Milan, namely, my office, asked to justice minister to send to US authority a possible request to arrest and extradite them on the base of a mutual convention between Italy and the United States. But the minister, in the first time, refused to send this request, as the law, the procedural law, allow him. But we sent to the minister another request, and we are still waiting, since July 2006, the answer of the minister. We didn’t receive any answer.
But I want to add other two things. The first one is that in Europe, if the sentenced people will come in Europe, they could be arrested, because in Europe is valid the European arrest warrant. It is valid also without the request of the political power. The second, of course, is that the Italian system knows — allow the trial in absentia, because there were the lawyer of the American defendant appointed in some case by themselves, or in other case by the judge. So their self-defense right was really — was realized in the hearing room with this lawyer.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your reaction to one of the agents that we just played, De Sousa, Sabrina De Sousa, who was interviewed on ABC. And she admits they broke the law, but said they were following orders and felt betrayed by the US government. Your response, Prosecutor Spataro?
ARMANDO SPATARO: I apologize. I apologize with you, but I prefer not comment the opinion of the sentenced people. As a rule, is important for the prosecutor to give some general information, as you asked me, but I prefer don’t give any comment on the opinion, on the words, of the defendant, the sentenced people.
AMY GOODMAN: If one of these operatives, like Robert Seldon Lady, like Sabrina De Sousa or others, go abroad, could they be picked up by Interpol? Could they be arrested? Will they be?
ARMANDO SPATARO: I told you before that, at the moment, they could be arrested only if they come in Europe, because the Interpol didn’t receive any request to research them and to arrest them by our justice minister. The government decided not to send any request, any advice, any memo to Interpol.
AMY GOODMAN: Does the Italian government back your prosecution?
ARMANDO SPATARO: Sorry, can you repeat?
AMY GOODMAN: Does the Italian government back your prosecution?
ARMANDO SPATARO: The system, the Italian system, is that the prosecutor can ask to the minister to send to US authority, to Interpol, Interpol, the request for the research and extradition of the fugitives, but only the justice minister can decide if to send or not the request. OK, it’s clear, only in Europe the arrest warrant is valid, because the —- we don’t need in Europe of the choice, the choice of the political power. It’s clear, sorry, because I apologize for my English, but I hope you can understand.
AMY GOODMAN: We can understand perfectly -—
ARMANDO SPATARO: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: — Prosecutor Spataro, and I thank you for being with us. You speak far better English than I speak Italian, I’m embarrassed to say.
But we’re also joined by Scott Horton, attorney here in New York, who’s been to Italy, who’s followed this case carefully. Scott, lay out what exactly these agents did. We’re talking about more than twenty-three operatives. Lay out the scene. It’s astounding what happened in 2003.
SCOTT HORTON: That’s right. It was described by Milt Bearden, a former senior CIA operative, as a Keystone Kops episode, because it was handled in a way that was so incompetent. And I think, in retrospect, many senior figures in the intelligence community view this as a stupid operation that was horribly bungled, but also just a bad decision to go after this cleric, who turned out really to have been of no particular use to them.
But the twenty-three Americans who were involved here and who were convicted were involved in a conspiracy to seize Abu Omar, who is an Egyptian cleric. They evidently wanted to take him back to Egypt, and they wanted turn him, to turn him into an agent who would spy for them, for the Americans, for the CIA. And the allegations that Prosecutor Spataro has made are really remarkably thorough and detailed, and they show how this group was in Italy, how they staked out Abu Omar, and how they snatched him. Then he was taken to —-
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the cell phones that were used.
SCOTT HORTON: The cell phones that were used -— I think one of the amazing things here is that the prosecution had evidence of the internal communications by cell phones. They had hotel receipts from where the CIA people had stayed, in five-star hotels, eating expensive meals with vintage wines, rented luxury automobiles — all at taxpayers’ expense. And Prosecutor Spataro succeeded in documenting all of this, step by step, every move that they went through.
So — and I think that’s the reason, the end of the day, even though the judge was not permitted to use official secrets that had come into the case, nevertheless the prosecutor here had such copious evidence demonstrating the connections of all these lower figures, especially the CIA operatives, that he was able to secure convictions. And, in fact, they never even denied it. I mean, both Robert Seldon Lady and Ms. De Sousa, who you just saw, they openly admitted, when they were interviewed, “Look, it was a crime. We knew it was a crime. And we know we broke the law.”
AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this here, Scott, for the US government?
SCOTT HORTON: Well, it really sets up a remarkable contrast with a decision that the Second Circuit handed down on Monday, that you discussed with Maria LaHood on Tuesday. Both of those cases dealt with exactly the same issue: extraordinary renditions, immunity, the claim for compensation.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that case was Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was coming through JFK Airport, going home from a family vacation to Canada — he’s a Canadian citizen — taken by authorities from JFK Airport, held for almost two weeks here in New York and then sent to Syria, where he was tortured and detained for ten months and ten days, then released to Canada.
SCOTT HORTON: Exactly right. But it raises exactly the same legal issues that Armando Spataro’s case did. And what we see is just a completely different treatment in Italy versus the United States. So the Italians, they listened to the immunity claims, they listened to all these other defenses, but nevertheless, for the Italian justice system, the extraordinary rendition process clearly was a crime. There was no getting around that. And that’s what led, in the end of the day, to the convictions, whereas on the American side, we see the court bending over backwards, basically to protect political figures from embarrassment.
Well, now, of course, the US government has got to work this out as a diplomatic issue with Italy. And what we’re going to see, I think, after we’ve had appeals concluded and so forth, is an effort by the Americans to get some sort of clemency for its people. But I don’t think that’s going to happen until the appeals process is worked out and until it’s carried down to the end. And in the end of the day, you’re going to have the question certainly still sitting there of compensation for the victim, where I imagine the Italians will insist that that compensation be paid.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the Muslim cleric for a minute. We have a clip of him. This was soon after he was released, the first time he was speaking, in 2007, after he was released after four years. This is the Muslim cleric Abu Omar.
ABU OMAR: [translated] I wish to stand before the court and explain everything to them and prove to them that I am innocent of any accusations. I am also directing my words to the Italian people, telling them that I will not give up the Italian people in their disaster, and I will stand and face any disaster they face. I will also stand with all the oppressed in the world, and I hope to work with human rights organizations to fight for the rights of the arrested all around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Abu Omar. Final comment, Scott Horton?
SCOTT HORTON: Well, he received a $2.3 million cash award, he and his wife do. And they’re now bringing a civil suit. And one consequence of this judgment is that it will be much more likely that they’ll prevail in that suit against the Italian officials against the — and the Americans. That’ll be probably more than $10 million in damages.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for Prosecutor Spataro the comment of Ian Kelly, the State Department spokesperson. He was being questioned by a reporter. If you could listen to this carefully, Prosecutor Spataro, and then give your final comment. Ian Kelly.
REPORTER: Do you have any comment on the CIA rendition case in Italy, the verdicts coming down?
IAN KELLY: We are disappointed by the verdicts against the Americans and Italians charged in Milan for their alleged involvement in the case involving Egyptian cleric Abu Omar. The judge has not yet issued a written opinion, so we’re not in a position to comment further on the decision. And because the case is ongoing and will probably be appealed, I can’t comment on the specifics of the case.
REPORTER: How does it — just in terms of kind of their status now, if indeed they’re considered international fugitives, how does that work, in terms of you dealing with other countries to ensure that if they’re, you know, overseas somewhere, that they’re not extradited to Italy?
IAN KELLY: Well, first of all, I mean, the verdict was just handed down today. We do anticipate that it will be appealed. We consider that this — this is ongoing litigation, so I don’t think you can characterize them in one way or another, in terms of their status, their international status as fugitives or otherwise. As I said, the US is disappointed by this, and we expect that the case will be — that it will continue to be in litigation.
AMY GOODMAN: That was State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly, being questioned by reporters here in Washington at the State Department. Finally, Prosecutor Armando Spataro, your response and final comment?
I think we’ve lost him, but we will leave it with Scott Horton responding to the State Department saying, “We are disappointed,” and this question now of these CIA operatives becoming international fugitives.
SCOTT HORTON: Well, they are international fugitives. That much is very, very clear. I mean, one of the things that Armando Spataro collected in his evidence were instructions that were given to Robert Seldon Lady to flee Italy because he faced imminent arrest. So he and the entire group are, in fact, fugitives from justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do they live? Where does Seldon Lady live?
SCOTT HORTON: He lives in Florida right now, but he’s been moving around a lot. And, of course, it’s not easy to get the whereabouts of these individuals. A large number of them are still with the CIA. Some have subsequently retired. Jeff Castelli, for instance, who the prosecutor described as the ringleader, has left the CIA and taken a job as a contractor.
AMY GOODMAN: With?
SCOTT HORTON: A small analysis firm.
AMY GOODMAN: Called?
SCOTT HORTON: I unfortunately don’t know it. We can put it up on your website later today [PhaseOne Communications].
AMY GOODMAN: OK. Scott Horton, I want to thank you for being with us, New York attorney specializing in international law and human rights, also legal affairs contributor to Harper’s Magazine, where he writes the blog “No Comment”.