(Reuters) - An Italian judge sentenced 23 Americans to up to eight years in prison on Wednesday for the abduction of a Muslim cleric in 2003, in a landmark ruling against the CIA “rendition” flights used by the previous U.S. government.
Twenty-six Americans were tried in absentia, 25 of them CIA agents at the time of the abduction. They included the former CIA station chief in Rome, Jeffrey Castelli, his counterpart in Milan, Robert Seldon Lady, former first secretary at the U.S. embassy in Rome Ralph Russomando, and Betnie Medero and Sabrina de Sousa, both former second secretaries at the Rome embassy.
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Romano, head of security at the U.S. air base in Aviano in northerneast Italy, was also charged with taking part in the abduction.
Seven Italians also faced charges, including the former head of Italy’s Sismi intelligence service, Nicolo Pollari.
That a CIA-led team grabbed Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a Muslim cleric suspected of recruiting militants for Iraq, in broad daylight from a Milan street on February 17, 2003.
Prosecutors say Nasr was flown from the Aviano base in northeast Italy, via the Ramstein base in Germany to Egypt, where he was tortured with electric shocks, beatings, rape threats and genital abuse.
Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was released from jail in Egypt in 2007 and lives in Alexandria.
Prosecutors began investigating the case after Nasr rang his wife from detention in Egypt. Indictments were issued in June 2005 but the case moved slowly, partly because Italian governments refused to seek the extradition of U.S. suspects.
U.S. authorities did not reply to Milan prosecutors’ requests to hear witnesses and gather information.
Italian prosecutors say they traced four cellphones used in the abduction to the area around the U.S. embassy in Rome.
An Italian anti-terrorist policeman, Luciano Pironi, admitted taking part in the abduction, saying it was ordered by Lady. The former head of Sismi’s office in Milan also said Lady had told him he was plotting Abu Omar’s abduction.
In a judicial raid on a Sismi safehouse in Rome, prosecutors say they found a Sismi document from May 2003 showing the CIA had informed them Abu Omar was being interrogated in Cairo.
In March 2009 Italy’s Constitutional Court barred much of the prosecution evidence including phone taps and testimony from Sismi agents, ruling it broke state secrecy rules.
The heaviest sentence -- eight years in prison -- was handed down to Robert Seldon Lady, while 21 other former agents got five years each, including Sabrina de Sousa.
Romano was also sentenced to five years, despite a U.S. appeal for jurisdiction over his case to be moved to the United States under NATO military rules.
Citing diplomatic immunity, Judge Oscar Magi dropped the case against Castelli and diplomats Russomando and Medero. Prosecutor Armando Spataro has said he may appeal this decision.
Charges were also dropped against five Italians, including Pollari, because evidence against them violated state secrecy rules. The judge sentenced two more junior Sismi agents to three years in prison as accomplices.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said: “We are disappointed by the verdicts ... The judge has not yet issued a written opinion so we’re not in a position to comment further.” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell expressed disappointment the judge had ignored requests for Romano’s case to be moved to the United States.
“Our view is the Italian court has no jurisdiction over Lieutenant Colonel Romano and should have immediately dismissed the charges. Now that they have not, we will, of course, explore what options we have going forward,” Morrell said.
The CIA declined to comment.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, premier at the time of the rendition and re-elected last year, denies knowledge of any kidnap operation. He has also criticized the trial on the grounds it could hurt Italy’s international reputation.
Writing by Daniel Flynn, editing by Tim Pearce