BRUSSELS The United States will reject any request by Italy to extradite CIA agents for the first criminal trial over controversial U.S. "renditions" of terror suspects, a U.S. government lawyer said on Wednesday.
A Milan judge earlier this month ordered 26 Americans, most of them thought to be CIA agents, to stand trial with Italian spies for kidnapping a Muslim cleric and flying him to Egypt, where he says he was tortured.
"We've not got an extradition request from Italy ... If we got an extradition request from Italy, we would not extradite U.S. officials to Italy," State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger told a news briefing.
Bellinger, in Brussels for meetings with European legal advisers, did not comment on details of the case but said the United States would never hand over a suspect to another country without assurances about their treatment.
He acknowledged widespread concern in Europe about the tactics of the Bush administration in what it calls the "war on terror" but said the risk of legal action against U.S. officials in Europe was harming intelligence cooperation.
"The continuing threat of criminal charges not only harms cooperation on our end but does also cast a pall over cooperation on the European side as well," he said.
"We get assurances from countries that individuals will be properly treated and if we can't get these assurances then we will not turn people over to those countries," he added.
Bellinger's remarks were no surprise and meant the indictees would probably stand trial in absentia on June 8.
THORN IN THE SIDE
Among those indicted for the 2003 abduction are Jeff Castelli, former CIA chief in Rome, former CIA Milan station chief Robert Lady and a former head of Italy's SISMI military intelligence agency, Nicolo Pollari.
Prosecutors say a CIA-led team, with SISMI's help, grabbed terrorism suspect Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, off a Milan street in February 2003, bundled him into a van and drove him to a military base in northern Italy.
Prosecutors allege the CIA flew him from there via Germany to Egypt, where he says he was tortured with electric shocks, beatings, rape threats and genital abuse.
Persistent criticism by European rights groups and lawmakers of U.S. anti-terror tactics and the alleged acquiescence of European governments has long troubled officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
A court in Munich issued arrest warrants last month for 13 suspected CIA agents accused of kidnapping a German of Lebanese descent and flying him to a jail in Afghanistan, where he too says he was tortured.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a senior aide to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has also faced a barrage of criticism over charges that he blocked the release of a German-born Turkish man held in Guantanamo Bay prison.
A European Parliament report published this month said that renditions were illegal and had taken place with the collusion of a number of European governments and their secret services.
Bellinger rejected the report as an "unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair" interpretation of acceptable and important intelligence cooperation.