MILAN (Reuters) - A Milan judge on Friday ordered 26 Americans, most of them believed 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.
Among those indicted for the 2003 abduction are the former heads of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Rome and Milan, and the former head of Italy’s SISMI military intelligence agency, Nicolo Pollari, defense lawyers said.
The trial of the Americans will almost certainly be in absentia, since Washington is not expected to hand them over.
The trial, set to begin on June 8, will be the first criminal case over “renditions” -- one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism.
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.
From there, prosecutors allege the CIA flew him via Germany to Egypt where he says he was tortured with electric shocks, beatings, rape threats and genital abuse.
Nasr was released from prison on Sunday and says he would like to return to Italy, where an Italian judge has issued a warrant for his arrest over suspicion of terrorist activity.
“I have been reduced to a wreck of a human being,” he told ANSA news agency after his release. In another interview this week he said he could hardly walk: “They burst my kidneys.”
Washington acknowledges secret transfers of terrorism suspects to third countries but denies using or sanctioning torture.
The State Department referred questions to the Justice Department, which had no comment.
“Our official, public view is that this is an internal, Italian judicial matter,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The case is being closely watched in Europe. The European Parliament approved a report on Wednesday saying governments in the region helped conceal secret U.S. transfers of terrorism suspects.
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.
Amnesty International said Friday’s indictments piled pressure on Washington to stop renditions. “Every time one turns around, another ally, international or regional body rises to reject this horrendous practice,” it said.
Italy has not acknowledged any role in the kidnapping but Pollari’s predecessor said in a deposition that the then CIA chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli, had raised the possibility of renditions in Italy just days after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
An Italian police officer, who has accepted a 21-month jail term instead of risking a heavier sentence by going to trial, has acknowledged helping the CIA grab Nasr.
But he says the CIA’s Milan station chief at the time, Robert Lady, told him the purpose was to recruit the imam as an informer, not abduct him. Both Lady and Castelli were indicted.
Beyond embarrassing Washington, the case also threatens to pit the Italian government against the independent judiciary in a battle to protect state secrets.
“This is an absurd trial,” said Silvio Berlusconi, who was prime minister at the time of the kidnapping.
“Now in the eyes of the entire world, our secret services will be seen as unreliable,” he said.
Current Prime Minister Romano Prodi has angered leftist allies by opting to keep documents related to the case classified and refusing so far to forward to Washington a request by the judiciary to extradite the Americans.
His government this week challenged Milan prosecutors in Italy’s constitutional court for breaking state secrecy rules during their investigation of possible involvement by SISMI.
Pollari says classified documents show he did nothing wrong.
“We are very disappointed as we’re convinced there is a lack of evidence and that documents covered by state secrecy would show Pollari’s innocence,” said his lawyer, Titta Madia.
Additional reporting by Jane Barrett in Madrid and Eleonor Biles in Rome