Italy's high court deals blow to CIA kidnap trial

ROME Wed Mar 11, 2009 4:37pm EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - Italy's highest court ruled on Wednesday that prosecutors broke state secrecy laws when building their case against U.S. and Italian intelligence agents accused of kidnapping a terrorism suspect.

But it was not immediately clear whether the Constitutional Court's ruling would force a lower court judge to shelve the criminal trial against 26 Americans and seven Italians when proceedings resume on March 18.

Prosecutors say a CIA-led team abducted a Muslim imam off the streets of Milan and flew him to Egypt in 2003. Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, says he was tortured under interrogation there and held for years without charge.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was in power at the time of Nasr's disappearance, has long challenged the trial, arguing that if state secrets come out in open court the global intelligence community could ostracize Italy.

The Italian state appealed to the high court on state secrecy grounds, and appeared to have won, at least partially.

In its one-page statement the Constitutional Court said prosecutors wrongly used classified materials to get to the trial phase.

Lawyers involved with the case had previously said such a ruling could deal a knock-out blow to the criminal proceedings, since indictments were at least partly based on those materials.

But the Constitutional Court did not explicitly annul the trial and it also did not appear to uphold all of the Italian state's arguments.

Human rights groups have accused the United States of breaking international law and "outsourcing torture" by secretly transferring alleged militants to foreign states in operations known as renditions.

Washington denies the torture charge but has defended renditions as a valid counter-terrorism tool that has produced vital intelligence.

Italy has denied any state role in Nasr's disappearance.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart)

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