An Italian judge has convicted 23 Central Intelligence Agency officers of participating in the kidnapping and rendition of an Egyptian cleric in Milan in 2003. The trial marked the first time the controversial anti-terrorism tool, known as extraordinary rendition, was challenged anywhere in the world.
“The message of this important ruling — to nations, governments, institutions, secret services, etc. — is that we cannot use illegal instruments in our effort against terrorism. Our democracies, otherwise, would betray their principles,” the lead prosecutor, Armando Spataro, told the Los Angeles Times.
All of the Americans were tried in absentia, and it is unlikely they will serve the jail sentences handed down by the judge.
Human rights groups, the Council of Europe and the United Nations have all long criticized the practice of extraordinary rendition as illegal — in particular when involving the transfer of prisoners to countries where they are likely to be tortured. Victims of extraordinary rendition are afforded little to no protection of their rights.
American and Italian operatives abducted Osama Hassan Mustafa Nasr, known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street. The cleric was transferred to the Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, on to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, before finally being turned over to Egyptian authorities. Abu Omar then spent four years in detention — where he says he was repeatedly tortured by Egyptian interrogators — before being released without charge.
Sabrina deSousa, one of the convicted Americans, told ABC news the U.S. “broke the law” in Abu Omar’s case and that the operatives were later “abandoned and betrayed” by those who ordered the operation. “And we are paying for the mistakes right now, whoever authorized and approved this,” she said.
The Obama administration has not indicated any plans to abandon extraordinary rendition as a tool, reflecting a certain level of support it still enjoys among the intelligence community as an effective anti-terrorism tool. Nevertheless, several European allies are considering legislative changes that would bar support for such operations.