ROME (Reuters) - An Italian judge ruled on Wednesday to proceed with the trial of U.S. and Italian spies accused of kidnapping an Egyptian imam in 2003; Europe's highest-profile case over the secret transfers of terrorism suspects.
A Milan judge rejected a defense request to lift arrest warrants against the 26 Americans, most of whom are believed to be CIA agents, despite some of the evidence being made inadmissible by state secrecy rules.
The U.S. agents and seven Italians are accused of abducting Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr in Milan and flying him to Egypt. Nasr, who is also known as Abu Omar, said he was tortured under questioning and held for years without charges.
Judge Oscar Magi was responding to a March constitutional court ruling that said some evidence was classified, prompting the defense to ask him to toss out the whole Abu Omar case.
"The judge's ruling is positive because all of the defense's requests were rejected and the trial is going ahead," prosecutor Armando Spataro told Reuters by telephone from Milan.
The decision to push ahead with the trial comes while the United States is debating the harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects and whether to prosecute the officials responsible. The U.S. government has refused to extradite the 26 spies in the Italian case.
Pressure is building for a full investigation after U.S. President Barack Obama released memos detailing interrogation techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation.
Magi said that neither Italy's prime minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi, nor his successor, Romano Prodi, could be called as witnesses because any evidence they might have would be covered by state secrecy rules.
Defense lawyers had asked for them to take the stand to strengthen arguments that Italian agents should be protected from prosecution by state secrecy rules. Spataro said that from his point of view they were "irrelevant" as witnesses.
Berlusconi, now prime minister again, has denied any Italian role in Abu Omar' disappearance and has argued the case risked ostracizing the country from the global intelligence community if secrets about Italian cooperation with the CIA were exposed in open court.
Titta Madia, the lawyer defending the former head of the Italian secret service, General Nicolo Pollari, told reporters that because of the state secrecy ruling, the Milan trial was now "at a dead end. It is only going ahead to save face."
Spataro rejected her comments but conceded that the judge's acceptance of the constitutional court's dismissal of evidence due to state secrecy rules "will obviously involve a big effort from the prosecution in gathering evidence in future."
Arianna Barbazza, the court-appointed Italian lawyer for suspects including the former CIA station chief in Milan, was not immediately available for comment, her office said.
Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi in Milan; writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Jon Hemming