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MILAN (Reuters) - Twenty six U.S. citizens, almost all believed to be CIA agents, went on trial in absentia on Friday accused of kidnapping a Muslim cleric in Milan and flying him to Egypt.
The court case, highlighting one of Washington's most controversial policies in its war on terrorism, started hours before President George W. Bush was due to visit Italy.
Egyptian Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was on Washington's list of terrorist suspects and he says he was tortured under interrogation in Egypt after his so-called extraordinary rendition from Italy.
"I would have liked this trial to show the whole world the truth about the world's number one terrorist -- George W. Bush -- and the crusader American administration ...," Nasr told Al Jazeera television by telephone from Egypt.
But he had low expectations of the trial as "only Westerners have rights, but Arabs and Muslims have no rights to life". The cleric, who was freed from jail in February but had his passport confiscated, said Egypt would not let him testify in Milan.
As expected, none of the Americans turned up and only one Italian agent was present in the courtroom, where empty cages lined two walls. The proceedings were adjourned until June 18 to decide on a defense request to suspend the trial.
Italian spies, including the former head of the SISMI intelligence agency, are accused of helping the U.S. citizens carry out their plan.
"I have been doing this job for 33 years, I have always done it with my head held high and in the full light of day," SISMI agent Luciano di Gregori told Reuters. "I have nothing to hide."
Washington has said it will reject any request by Italy to extradite the accused.
In Paris on Friday, a European investigator said he had proof Poland and Romania hosted secret CIA prisons under a post-9/11 pact to hunt down and interrogate "high value" terrorist suspects wanted by the United States.
Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro told reporters the Milan case would show the need to fight against terrorism with "the full respect of the laws of our Western democracies".
"We want the punishment of the terrorists, but in the courtrooms. And we don't need to give to our enemies any reason for recruiting other members of their organizations," he said.
Italy's prime minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi, says the trial could expose international espionage secrets.
The trial comes at an awkward time for current centre-left Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who is unpopular a year into the job. He wants to keep fractious coalition partners united behind him and away from street protests against Bush on Saturday.
The trial began with largely procedural matters but was soon adjourned on defense attorneys' request pending a decision by Italy's constitutional court, expected in October.
Prodi's office has lodged a motion with that court arguing that prosecutors broke state secrecy rules. But Spataro objected to a suspension which he said would give Prodi carte blanche to block any trial he found "uncomfortable".
Prosecutors say a CIA-led team seized the Egyptian, bundled him into a van, drove him to a military base in northern Italy and flew him via Germany to Egypt. There he says he was tortured with electric shocks, beatings, rape threats and genital abuse.
The cleric's Egyptian lawyer Montasser al-Zayat, attending the trial, said his client "wants to be compensated morally and wants those who kidnapped him to pay for their crimes".
The Italian case begins just over a week after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit against a Boeing Co. unit it accuses of helping the U.S. CIA transfer foreign suspects to overseas prisons.