MILAN (Reuters) – An Italian judge said on Monday that Italy’s secret services knew about the CIA’s kidnapping of a terrorism suspect in Milan seven years ago, despite Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s denial of any Italian involvement.
Judge Oscar Magi, who in November sentenced 23 Americans in absentia to up to eight years in prison for the 2003 kidnapping, said in an explanation of his landmark ruling that Italian spy chiefs were informed of, and possibly complicit in, the abduction of Egyptian-born cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.
His verdict last year was the first of its kind against the “rendition” flights practiced by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush, which have been condemned by civil society groups as a violation of basic human rights.
Nasr, known as “Abu Omar,” was flown to Egypt for interrogation, where he said he was tortured and held until 2007 without charge.
“The authorization to act on national territory by the highest level of U.S. intelligence leads one to presume this was carried out with the knowledge (and perhaps the complicity) of their Italian equivalents,” Magi said in his ruling, which was only released on Monday under Italian legal practices.
The judge, who was forced to drop charges against five former Italian spies under state secrecy rules, said secret services should not be shielded from responsibility for crimes simply because of the involvement of foreign governments.
“This means, in simple terms, that they can enjoy an absolute immunity in both real and judicial terms,” Magi said.
The judge said that the Constitutional Court’s decision to impose state secrecy rules in the case had drawn a “black veil” over the activities of the Italian secret service.
In response to the ruling, Public Prosecutor Armando Spataro said he was considering whether to appeal against the dismissal of the case against the five Italians and three American defendants, who enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
Abu Omar, talking to Italian news agency Ansa in Cairo, said he would write to Berlusconi and U.S. President Barack Obama to notify them he was willing to drop a civil case in Italy seeking damages of $10 million. He also thanked Magi for his ruling.
“This could reopen the case … It could force the arrest of important people whose names have been protected by state secret,” he said.
The toughest sentence of eight years in prison was given to the former head of the CIA’s Milan station, Robert Seldon Lady, while 21 ex-CIA agents got five years each, as did a U.S. air force lieutenant colonel.
With Washington refusing to extradite any of the Americans, the ruling was a symbolic condemnation, but was welcomed by rights groups.
The U.S. State Department expressed its disappointment at November’s verdict while Berlusconi, who was in power at the time of the kidnapping, said it could tarnish Italy’s international reputation.