WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has moved to formally shield from conviction one of the 26 Americans on trial in Italy on charges he helped the CIA kidnap a terrorism suspect in 2003, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.
Washington invoked jurisdiction in the case against Colonel Joseph Romano under a NATO agreement that applies to suspected crimes overseas by military personnel performed “in the course of official duty,” Defense Department spokesman Commander Bob Mehal told Reuters.
Romano is among the Americans on trial in Milan accused of grabbing Imam Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, off a Milan street, driving him to the Aviano military base in northern Italy and flying him to Egypt. It was the first time the United States formally stepped into the case to shield any of the American suspects from prosecution.
Nasr said he was tortured in Egypt under questioning and held for years without charge. The politically charged trial is the most closely watched case in Europe on secret U.S. transfers, known as “renditions.”
None of the Americans is in Italy for the trial and the United States has ruled out extraditing them.
“This action is being taken now because the trial is winding down and heading toward a verdict. All other efforts at diplomatic or legal solutions appear to have failed,” Mehal said. “There is no choice left but to assert at this point.”
Mehal said initial information indicated that the Milan judge, Oscar Magi, rejected a motion to dismiss charges submitted in court by Romano’s attorney. But there was some confusion about whether Magi might still hear arguments about the matter later this month, he said.
The motion was based on the U.S. decision to invoke jurisdiction under the NATO “Status of Forces Agreement,” known as “SOFA.”
“We are reviewing this decision, but hope and expect that the Italian government will adhere to its treaty obligations and respect our assertion of jurisdiction under the NATO SOFA,” he said.
Romano, who was promoted to colonel in 2007 and is now based in Texas, was commander of security forces at Aviano Air Base at the time of Nasr’s disappearance.
Italian prosecutors say he was complicit in the abduction and say they are confident they have enough evidence to win convictions against accused U.S. and Italian spies on trial.
Mehal said the decision to invoke jurisdiction was “not a comment on the merits of the trial proceedings in Italy or on the validity of the underlying allegations.”
It did not appear that the other American suspects, who prosecutors say were working for the CIA, could benefit from the NATO agreement since it applies only to members of the military.
One of the accused, former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, said in an Italian newspaper interview published in June that he was only following orders and described himself as a soldier in the war on terrorism.
Under President George W. Bush, the United States said it had used rendition to apprehend terrorism suspects around the world and deliver them for interrogation in third countries. It has not acknowledged any rendition in Italy.
The move comes as the United States is debating the harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects who were in U.S. custody and whether to prosecute the officials responsible.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month named a prosecutor to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against CIA interrogators or contractors for going beyond approved interrogation methods.
Editing by Deborah Charles, Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh