WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, who was convicted in Italy of kidnapping an Egyptian Muslim cleric and detained in Panama this week, returned to the United States on Friday, a State Department spokeswoman said.
The ex-spy was among 23 Americans sentenced in absentia by an Italian judge in 2009 for the abduction of the cleric. It was unclear whether any action would be taken against Lady, who was sentenced by Italy to a nine-year jail term, after his return to the United States.
Lady was originally sentenced in the first trial of its kind against “rendition” flights practiced by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush.
Italy’s top court last year upheld the guilty verdict against Lady for the kidnapping of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who was snatched from a Milan street in 2003 and flown to Egypt for interrogation where he says he was tortured.
The rendition flights by the Bush administration have been condemned by human rights groups and prompted investigations into the procedure in countries allied to the United States.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said she had no details on whether Lady would be questioned by U.S. authorities, or whether the United States would cooperate with Italy on the case.
A Panamanian foreign ministry source said Lady was detained for 24 hours at the border with Costa Rica pending an extradition request from Italy.
He was let go because Panama does not have an extradition treaty with Italy and because documentation sent by Italian officials was “insufficient,” the source said.
Italy expressed disappointment at Panama’s actions, saying it had taken all the diplomatic steps seeking his temporary detention so that the extradition procedure could be started.
“I am astonished to observe that our request was disregarded without plausible explanation,” Italian Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said in a statement.
In April, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano pardoned U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph Romano, who had been among the Americans sentenced for the kidnapping.
Lady was quoted by Il Giornale newspaper in 2009 as saying: “I’m not guilty. I’m only responsible for carrying out orders that I received from my superiors.”
Also in that interview, he lamented that he had wanted to stay in Italy but his retirement villa with vineyards had been seized to cover court costs.
“I love Italy. I had decided to live my life in Italy,” the retired spy told the newspaper. “Instead I had to escape.”
It was not clear why Lady was in Central America and risked arrest by crossing borders.
He was bounced around between two Central American countries as he attempted to leave Panama for Costa Rica at around 9:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, Costa Rican immigration department spokeswoman Andrea Quezada said.
He arrived alone at a Costa Rican border checkpoint near the southwestern town of Paso Canoas but was sent back to Panama when a red alert, indicating an Interpol arrest warrant, appeared in the checkpoint’s database, she said.
Costa Rica does not treat red alerts as grounds for immediate arrest whereas Panama does, an Interpol official in Costa Rica said. As a result, Lady was denied entry to Costa Rica.
Due to confusion over the spelling of the ex-CIA official’s name, Panamanian officials did not initially detect him in their database and only discovered their error after Interpol discussions between the two countries, the official added.
After that he was detained in Panama, and then released.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights said the United States should not block Lady’s extradition to Italy just as it was seeking the return of former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is charged with leaking information about secret U.S. surveillance programs.
Snowden has been charged under the U.S. Espionage Act and has been stuck at a Moscow airport as he seeks asylum abroad.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Isabella Cota in San Jose, Catherine Hornby in Rome and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Jim Loney