An Italian appeals court ordered the arrest of six additional CIA operatives Monday in connection with the disappearance of a radical Muslim cleric who was snatched from the streets of Milan two years ago, a prosecutor said.
The arrest warrants bring to 19 the number of operatives being sought by Italian justice officials. None is believed to be in Italy currently, and no one has been arrested in connection with the case.
“We now have 19 fugitives,” the lead prosecutor in the case, Armando Spataro, told the Los Angeles Times.
At issue is the disappearance of Hassan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, an Egyptian who Italian officials say was kidnapped by CIA agents and bundled off to an Egyptian jail, where he was tortured. The operation was believed to be an “extraordinary rendition,” a controversial U.S. practice of clandestinely seizing terrorism suspects in one country and transporting them to another, where they are interrogated and sometimes brutalized.
Italian prosecutors’ efforts to arrest and try the CIA operatives have proved enormously embarrassing to the agency and to Italian government officials, straining traditionally close U.S. Italian ties. It is rare for one of Washington’s allies to attempt to prosecute U.S. spies.
The six for whom warrants were issued Monday are believed to have followed Abu Omar, who had been living in Milan since 2001, determined his habits and patterns, and cased out routes for transporting him to the U.S.-Italian Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, from which he was flown to Egypt.
The operation appeared sloppy: According to Italian court documents and interviews with Italian law enforcement officials, the operatives behaved recklessly, leaving a clear trail. They spoke frequently and openly on cellphones and rented rooms at luxury hotels using passports and credit cards.
Although most of the names used were probably aliases, the identity of the former CIA station chief in Milan was exposed and has been printed widely in the Italian press and some American press. He no longer works for the agency and has vanished from a retirement home he purchased near Turin.
Spataro, the Italian prosecutor, sought arrest warrants this year for all 19 operatives allegedly involved in the operation. A judge last month granted them for the 13 who allegedly participated directly in seizing the cleric as he walked to a mosque. The judge refused to order the arrest of the six who allegedly helped in reconnaissance.
Spataro appealed, and a three-judge court Monday granted his request.
“The court wrote that it is not possible to distinguish between the two groups, the first that only studied the area of the operation and [Abu Omar’s] way of life, and the second group that were the actual executors,” Spataro said from Milan. “They were all involved in the same project of kidnapping. They were all responsible.”
The appeal, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, alleges that all of the operatives participated in the conspiracy because they shared hotels, and their telephone traffic indicated they were frequently together and in regular contact. A female agent from the group of six shared a room at the five-star Westin Hotel in Milan with a male agent from the group of 13, the court documents allege.
The CIA declined to comment on the case Monday.
At the time of his disappearance, Abu Omar was under investigation by Italian counter-terrorism police who suspected he was helping recruit suicide bombers. He was frequenting a mosque in Milan that U.S. authorities had long branded a center of Islamic extremism.
The Italians insist they were preparing to arrest Abu Omar when he disappeared and say the U.S. ruined their case.