Italian Lawyer in CIA Case Withdraws
COLLEEN BARRY / AP 9jan2007
MILAN, Italy — A lawyer for a CIA agent accused in the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan withdrew from the case shortly after a court opened hearings Tuesday on whether to indict him and 25 other Americans.
Five Italian secret service officials also are facing indictment in the case that highlights the CIA's alleged extraordinary rendition program, in which terror suspects are transferred to third countries where critics say they may face torture.
Shortly after the proceedings began the lawyer for Robert Seldon Lady withdrew from the case, saying the former CIA station chief did not want to cooperate.
"Robert Seldon Lady says that this case should have had a political solution and not a judicial solution," lawyer Daria Pesce said. "The Italian government could have decided it was a state secret — remember, this was a terror suspect. It would have been possible if the Italian government had had the courage to reach an agreement with the U.S. government."
Prosecutors say the operation was a breach of Italian sovereignty that compromised their own anti-terrorism efforts. None of the defendants attended the closed session, which lasted about three hours and ended without a decision. The next hearing was scheduled for Jan. 29.
Asked whether Pesce's withdrawal signaled the CIA's attempt to dissociate itself from the case, prosecutor Armando Spataro, who requested the indictments, said her statements were reminiscent of an era when terror groups tried to discredit Italian justice.
"I heard the same thing from the Red Brigades during the terror trials in the 1970s," Spataro said.
Seldon Lady was the only American who had hired a lawyer rather than have a court-appointed one. He was still in Italy when the case broke, and owns a home in Italy that was searched by police.
Pesce, who met with Seldon Lady four or five times in the United States, mostly recently in September, said the court had already appointed a new lawyer for him.
All but one of the Americans have been identified by the prosecution as CIA agents, including former station chiefs in Rome and Milan, and the 26th as a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at the time at Aviano air base near Venice. The Italians include the former head of the Italian military intelligence, Nicolo Pollari.
In Italy, defendants are not required to attend preliminary hearings, or even trials. Spataro has asked Romano Prodi's center-left government to seek the extradition of the American suspects, but there has been no response. The previous prime minister, conservative Silvio Berlusconi, who was a close ally of President Bush, refused.
Pollari's defense lawyers said Tuesday they intend in the next session to try to add both Prodi and Berlusconi to the witness stand, as well as their respective defense ministers.
Even if the request is made, a move bound to irritate U.S.-Italian relations, it was unlikely that the CIA agents would be turned over for trial abroad.
The CIA has refused to comment on the case.
Spataro has entered into evidence a handwritten letter by Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, allegedly smuggled out of an Egyptian prison, describing his abduction from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, and his journey, blindfolded and bound, to Egypt, where he said he had been left in an underground cell, repeatedly tortured and threatened with rape.
Prosecutors say Nasr was flown via the joint U.S.-Italian Aviano air base first to a base in Germany and then on to Egypt.
Nasr, an Egyptian cleric and terrorist suspect also known as Abu Omar, had been granted political asylum in 2001.
He was under investigation here on suspicion of involvement in international terrorism at the time of his disappearance, but had not been charged.
He is being held at a police station in Alexandria, Egypt.
Nasr said that when he arrived in Egypt, he was put in a tiny cell with no light. He said he was tortured "with electric shocks," punched, slapped and forced to walk on one foot with his hands tied. The interrogation lasted seven months, at which time he was transferred to another building where he was held for another six months.