A Milan appeals court on Friday vacated acquittals for a former CIA station chief and two other Americans, and instead convicted them in the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian terror suspect from a Milan street as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program.
The decision means that all 26 Americans tried in absentia for the abduction now have been found guilty.
The ongoing trials, which have dragged on for years, brought the first convictions anywhere in the world against CIA agents involved in a practice alleged to have led to torture. The case has been the source of diplomatic tensions, although three successive Italian leaders, including the technical government of Premier Mario Monti, have invoked state secrets, which has had the impact of limiting evidence in the successive trials and led to the acquittals of five Italians, including two spy chiefs.
An appeals court sentenced former CIA Rome station chief Jeffrey Castelli to seven years, and handed sentences of six years each to Americans Betnie Medero and Ralph Russomando. A lower court, while convicting 23 other Americans in November 2009, had acquitted the three, citing diplomatic immunity.
None of the Americans have ever been in Italian custody or have ever appeared in court, but they risk arrest if they travel to Europe. Only two have had any contact with their lawyers, both of whom expressly requested their own counsel late in the first trial phase, in the face of U.S. official silence on the case and citing special personal and legal circumstances. A number of the names listed on the official docket are believed to be aliases.
Italy’s highest court last year upheld the convictions of the 23 other Americans in absentia in the abduction of an Egyptian terror suspect Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, on February 17, 2003. Nasr was transferred to U.S. military bases in Italy, then Germany, before being flown to Egypt, where he alleges he was tortured. He has since been released.
Those convicted in the original trial included the former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, whose original seven-year sentence was raised to nine years by Italy’s high court. The other 22 Americans, all but one identified by prosecutors as CIA agents, also saw their sentences stiffened on the final appeal, from five to seven years. The high court ruling marked their final appeal.
Justice Minister Paola Severino said in a December statement that extradition can only be sought for Lady, citing a decree issued in 2000 that says extradition may be requested only for subjects whose sentence exceeds four years. A 2006 amnesty, which applies to these cases, reduces the sentences by three years, bringing Lady’s to six years; all of the other sentences, including those handed down Friday, would fall below the extradition threshold.
Lady’s lawyer, Arianna Barbazza, said any decision on extradition would likely fall to the next Italian government, which will be elected later this month.
"The ministry’s statement was ambiguous," Barbazza said. "It was approved three hours before Monti’s government stepped down. I don’t think they would have sent a request. It will be up to the next government."
The appeals process for Castelli and the other two was separated for technical reasons. The appellate court’s reasoning was expected to be released in 15 days, but defense lawyer Alessia Sorgato said the decision noted extenuating circumstances.
"That goes some way to saying they acted on orders of a superior," said Sorgato, who represents Medero. She said she was satisfied that the sentences were less than that for the other Americans. She will decide whether to appeal to the highest court after reading the court’s reasoning.
Meanwhile, another appeals trial in the case opened last week in Milan –that of the five Italians acquitted for state secrets. A conviction of the Italians would hold consequences for U.S.-Italian relations by potentially demonstrating official Italian involvement in the case.
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