The first criminal trial involving one of the Bush administration's most controversial tactics in fighting terrorism is set to begin in June after an Italian judge Friday indicted 33 people, including some two dozen CIA operatives and the man who until recently was Italy's top spy.
Judge Caterina Interlandi ordered the 26 Americans and seven Italians to stand trial in connection with the February 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric who was snatched in broad daylight on a Milan street and whisked away to an Egyptian jail, where he says he was tortured.
"This is an important moment," lead prosecutor Armando Spataro said. He urged the Italian government to press ahead with petitions for extradition of the defendants.
It is not clear whether Italy will seek the extradition of the Americans, and it is highly unlikely the U.S. government would comply. In fact, it is all but guaranteed that none of the Americans will ever appear in court.
Still, the trial could proceed because Italian law allows for the prosecution of defendants in absentia. Arrest warrants for the 26 men and women -- 25 CIA operatives, including two station chiefs, and an American Air Force colonel -- have been issued and apply throughout the European Union.
The case has proved embarrassing to Washington because it exposed the highly secretive and extrajudicial practice known as extraordinary rendition. After years of denial, the Bush administration now acknowledges the tactic of seizing suspects and sending them to third countries for interrogation, but it denies sanctioning torture.
The alleged complicity of several European governments also has been gradually exposed as prosecutors and independent investigators in Italy, Germany and elsewhere have attempted to build cases against American and European agents who are believed to have detained possibly hundreds of suspects in extraordinary renditions.
Now the first trial promises to reveal more details about the covert operations, turning fresh public glare on the Bush administration and its most loyal allies, including the government of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The cleric at the center of the case, Hassan Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, was released without charge this month from prison in Egypt.
Through an attorney, he said he was prepared to return to Italy and wanted to sue Berlusconi and the CIA, following what he described as confinement in a rat-infested cell where guards repeatedly beat him, applied electrical shocks to his body and abused his genitals. An Italian judicial source said he believed that one of the CIA officers might have been present at some of the early interrogations.
"I have been reduced to a wreck of a human being," Abu Omar said.
The cleric entered Italy illegally in 1997 and was eventually granted political asylum. Though never charged with a crime, he was under investigation as a suspected terrorist. Italian law enforcement officials said they were about to arrest him when the CIA intervened.
Alessia Sorgato, a lawyer representing three of the indicted Americans, welcomed the decision to go to trial.
"I am happy because finally ... we will be able to clarify the role of [the clients] in this matter," she said Friday.
It is a sign of the complexity of the case that Sorgato has never met or spoken to her clients. All attorneys representing the Americans were court-appointed, and the CIA and U.S. government have refused to comment publicly on the case or recognize the court's jurisdiction.
For evidence, Italian prosecutors have relied heavily on an extensive paper trail left by the CIA operatives as they allegedly planned the seizure of Abu Omar and carried it out. The agents rang up bills totaling tens of thousands of dollars at some of Milan's finest hotels and restaurants and chatted openly on easily traced cellphones. They left behind photocopies of their passports and frequent-flier cards.
Although most of the Americans were using aliases, Italian investigators were able to track calls and other contacts to Robert Seldon Lady, the now-retired CIA station chief in Milan, and the CIA's top man in Italy, former Rome station chief Jeff Castelli.
After Abu Omar was detained, his captors bundled him into a van and rushed him to the U.S.-run part of Aviano Air Base in northern Italy. From there, a private jet flew him to Egypt, with a stopover at the U.S. base at Ramstein, Germany. The only non-CIA American named in the indictment is Lt. Col. Joseph Romano of the Aviano base.
Berlusconi's government refused prosecutors' requests for extradition; a decision from the current center-left government of Romano Prodi is pending.
Though the U.S. government will be most concerned about its operatives, Italy is in an uproar over confirmation of the complicity of its own secret services.
Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy's military intelligence service until late last year, when he lost his job over the widening scandal, was among those indicted Friday, as was his senior deputy. According to court documents obtained by The Times, Pollari has said that the CIA's Castelli asked for help in apprehending Abu Omar and several other suspects but that he declined.
Wiretaps of conversations of his top aides appear to indicate they knew that what they were being asked to do was illegal.
Pollari "is very disappointed and bitter but at the same time combative," said Titta Madia, the former spymaster's attorney.
Two Italians in the original indictment, one a senior police officer who confessed to his role in the kidnapping, reached plea agreements separately.
Interlandi set the trial to begin June 8. It could be delayed, however, because the government has asked the Italian Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, to rule on whether prosecutors overstepped their bounds by wiretapping 80 or more military intelligence agents during the investigation.
Members of Italy's political establishment are at one another's throats over whether the trial should go forward.
Francesco Rutelli, deputy prime minister, accused prosecutors of endangering national security by "exposing" the agents and their methods.
But Antonio di Pietro, a Cabinet minister and a former star state prosecutor, disagreed: "Secret agents, whether Italian or foreign, can't act like a gang of Sardinian bandits."
The European Parliament this week issued a scathing report, the result of a yearlong investigation, accusing Italy and 13 other countries of allowing their territory and airspace to be used by the CIA in extraordinary renditions.
Charging that governments ignored basic human rights, it documented 1,245 CIA-operated flights in Europe from 2001 to 2005.
Switzerland this week ordered an investigation of the use of its airspace to transport Abu Omar. Germany recently ordered the arrest of 13 Americans and others in another suspected CIA abduction; Portugal and Spain are investigating the use of their territory for stopovers by CIA flights involved in renditions; and Canada last month apologized to a Syrian-born citizen it allowed the U.S. to transport to Syria, where he says he was tortured.
Amnesty International, one of several human rights groups highly critical of aspects of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies, said it hoped the Italian court's ruling Friday would add to pressure on Washington to halt "the illegal practice of extraordinary renditions."
"It is time for Congress to lead the country and end this appalling practice once and for all," it said.
Wilkinson reported from Atlanta and De Cristofaro from Rome.