April 17, 2007 / 8:25 AM / 13 years ago

U.S. soldier on trial in Italy for Iraq killing

ROME (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier went on trial in absentia in Italy on Tuesday accused of killing an Italian intelligence agent in Iraq, but his lawyer said his client would reject the court’s jurisdiction.

Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari speaks on a mobile phone in an undated file photo. A U.S. soldier went on trial in Rome on Tuesday accused of killing the Italian intelligence agent in Iraq but was being prosecuted in absentia because Washington has ruled out handing him over. REUTERS/STRINGER

After preliminary motions, it was adjourned until May 14.

Mario Lozano, from the U.S. Army National Guard in New York, denies wrongdoing in firing at Nicola Calipari’s car when the agent was escorting a newly freed hostage to Baghdad airport in 2005. He says the driver ignored warnings to slow down or stop.

He is being tried in absentia because Washington has ruled out handing him over and his lawyer, Alberto Biffani, indicated his client could formally reject the Italian court’s authority.

“Of course, Mr. Lozano will reject that this court has jurisdiction in this case,” Biffani told reporters.

The U.S. and Italian governments said the shooting was an accident, but an Italian judge charged Lozano with murder and two counts of attempted murder of those in the car.

His trial began in a courtroom inside Rome’s maximum security prison, Rebibbia, the largest in the Italian capital. Seven empty cages flanked the left side of the courtroom, normally used to hold high-security defendants.

“It’s worse for him if he does not come,” said Franco Coppi, the lawyer representing Calipari’s widow Rosa.

The prosecution reacted with open disdain when Biffani claimed that his client had no formal knowledge of the case against him, especially following Lozano’s recent interviews with U.S. media in which he defended his actions.

“This is a statement that we consider an insult to our intelligence,” Coppi said.

BILATERAL TIES

The case has strained bilateral ties. Although Rome agreed the killing was an accident, it has also criticized the U.S. military for placing inexperienced troops at a poorly set up roadblock and the government supports the trial.

“The Americans have a different point of view. They consider the case closed and that there is no one to blame,” said Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema.

For the freed hostage, reporter Giuliana Sgrena, the trial showed U.S. troops could be held accountable for their actions. She was wounded in the shooting and is suing for damages.

“We have demonstrated we can break this immunity that normally American soldiers have been guaranteed all over the world,” Sgrena told Reuters television.

Lozano angered Sgrena and Calipari’s widow last week by defending the shooting.

“If you hesitate, you come home in a box — and I didn’t want to come home in a box. I did what any soldier would do in my position,” he was quoted as saying by the New York Post.

The trial is one of the biggest in Italy involving U.S. military since a low-flying Marines plane cut an Italian ski lift cable, killing 20 people in 1998. A U.S. military court later cleared the pilot of manslaughter.

Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi, Antonio Denti and Cristiano Corvino

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