Abu Omar, victim of kidnapping by CIA, rendition & torture (Flickr Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي)

The highest appeals court in Italy upheld verdicts against twenty-three Americans, all of whom are CIA agents except one. They were found guilty of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar in 2003. Omar was flown to Egypt and tortured.

Though they each were given sentences of seven years or more, none of the American intelligence agents, including former Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, will ever serve a day in jail in Italy. However, they will be (and have been) limited in their abilities to travel to Europe since their convictions.

The court also determined five senior Italian secret service agents, “including the former head of the country’s military intelligence agency,” according to the BBC, should be tried for their involvement in kidnapping Omar.

In February 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, according to a US State Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks. Berlusconi reassured him that the US would win on appeal:

SecDef asked Berlusconi for his assistance in affirming U.S. jurisdiction over Colonel [Joseph] Romano, one of the defendants in the Abu Omar case, under the NATO SOFA. Berlusconi and Cabinet Advisor Letta assured SecDef the GOI was working hard to resolve the situation. Berlusconi gave an extended rant about the Italian judicial system — which frequently targets him since it is “dominated by leftists” as the public prosecutor level. Berlusconi predicted that the “courts will come down in our favor” upon appeal, noting that higher-level appellate courts are significantly less politicized than local courts.

Another cable features a February 2010 meeting between Gates and Minister of Defense Ignacio La Russa:

…Drawing on his own legal background, La Russa advised the U.S. to be more present in the appeals process and not leave it solely to the Italian government to make the case for recognition of U.S. jurisdiction. He noted that the assertion of jurisdiction late in the trial had given prosecutors a chance to politicize the issue. SecDef reminded La Russa that the U.S decision not to immediately assert jurisdiction was made at the advice of GOI and has not served U.S. interests well…

An October 2008 cable shows the Italian government was pressuring the courts in Italy over the case to not return guilty verdicts. “The Italian Government asked the Constitutional Court to annul the indictment as it was based on evidence covered by state secrecy,” according to the cable. And an August 31, 2006 cable indicates concern for the “chilling effect” the kidnapping and rendition was having on “traditionally close and fruitful working relationships with both the external (SISMI) and internal (SISDE) intelligence services.”

…Italian intelligence agencies now are much more cautious about working with us. The case also has fueled a domestic debate about reforming the Italian intelligence community and defining the role of Italian intelligence services in the fight against terrorism…

Finally, yet another cable provides a glimpse into why Italy has not made formal extradition requests for any of the twenty-three Americans. In April 2007, Italy’s foreign minister Massimo D’Alema asked the State Department for something in writing explaining the “US would not act on extradition requests in the Abu Omar case.” This could be used “pre-emptively” by the Italian government “to fend off action by Italian magistrates to seek the extradition of the implicated Americans.”

Omar was tortured after agents kidnapped and put him on a rendition flight to Egypt. As Peter Bergen detailed for Mother Jones in the magazine’s March/April 2008 issue, on February 17, 2003 Omar was on his way to a mosque inside a garage.

He strolled down Via Guerzoni, a quiet street mostly empty of businesses and lined with high, view-blocking walls. A red Fiat pulled up beside him and a man jumped out, shouting “Polizia! Polizia!” Abu Omar produced his ID. “Suddenly I was lifted in the air,” he recalled. He was dragged into a white van and beaten, he said, by wordless men wearing balaclavas. After trussing him with restraints and blindfolding him, they sped away.

Hours later, when the van stopped, Abu Omar heard airplane noise. His clothes were cut off and something was stuffed in his anus, likely a tranquilizing suppository. His head was entirely covered in tape with only small holes for his mouth and nose, and he was placed on a plane. Hours later he was hustled off the jet. He heard someone speaking Arabic in a familiar cadence; in the distance, a muezzin was calling the dawn prayer. After more than a decade in exile, he was back in Egypt.

In the first Egyptian prison where he was held, he was told he’d be released if he’d go spy on “militants” at his mosque. He refused and so he was kept “blindfolded and handcuffed for seven months” in a cell with no lights or windows that had a temperature that was either freezing or insufferably hot. Interrogations happened at any time of the day or night. Interrogators used their fists, electric cables and chairs, stripped him naked and subjected him to electric shocks. And in the fall of 2003, he was transferred to another Egyptian prison where he was crucified and raped and subjected to seven more months of torture until a Cairo court found he had no ties to terrorism.

This is what the United States government protects and what it will continue to protect twenty-three Americans from being held accountable for committing and making possible. This is what State Department diplomats fought to keep from stirring further controversy and creating any diplomatic crises for the United States. And this is the sort of conduct, which the United States believes its agents or soldiers should be able to engage in with impunity whether it be in Spain, Iraq, Afghanistan or any country where the US might be spreading what it claims to be global forces of good.