CIA agents’ rendition trial on hold

Times Staff Writer

The first trial involving one of the Bush administration’s most controversial counter-terrorism practices was put on hold Monday by an Italian judge who decided to await a higher court’s ruling on challenges to the case.

The decision was a setback for prosecutors attempting to try 26 Americans, most of them CIA agents, for snatching a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in 2003 and transporting him to his native Egypt, where he has said he was tortured.

The Americans are being tried in absentia. The case has focused a spotlight on the practice known as extraordinary rendition, in which terrorism suspects are captured by U.S. agents in a foreign country for transport to a third, where they are interrogated. Seven Italians, including the country’s former top spymaster, are codefendants.


Judge Oscar Magi on Monday suspended the trial, which had begun in Milan just 10 days earlier, until Oct. 24 to allow the Constitutional Court, Italy’s highest, to rule on challenges brought by the Italian government and by defense lawyers.

Lawyers for the prime minister’s office have asked that the indictments be voided, contending that prosecutors relied on state secrets to build their case, thus exposing covert intelligence agents and putting security operations at risk. Defense attorneys argue that prosecutors overstepped their authority by using wiretaps of secret agents to amass evidence.

If the Constitutional Court rules in the government’s favor, the case against the CIA operatives and the others would probably die, experts say. Ruling in favor of only the defense would weaken but not necessarily end the case.

Prosecutors have denied the government’s claims and said they were dismayed by Monday’s ruling.

Ferdinando Pomarici, one of the lead prosecutors, said the judge’s order sets a dangerous precedent, allowing the government to halt any prosecution it deems inconvenient.

“You cannot have a system where trials are suspended every time the government raises a conflict of jurisdiction,” Pomarici told journalists outside the courtroom.


In his ruling, Magi said, in essence, that proceeding with the trial when many of its elements might later be thrown out was not the most efficient use of judicial resources.

Defense attorneys were pleased. “This makes sense,” said Titta Madia. “We need to know what evidence is going to be used and what won’t be.”

Madia represents Nicolo Pollari, the former head of Italian military intelligence, who is accused of collaborating with the CIA in the abduction. Pollari says he’s innocent.

Alessia Sorgato, court-appointed attorney for three of the absent CIA operatives -- none of whom she has met or communicated with -- said she was pleased with Monday’s decision. But she also said the trial should not be allowed to drag on indefinitely, a common occurrence in the Italian justice system.

“This is a trial that we really must do,” she said in a telephone interview.

Sorgato and some of the other defense attorneys want the trial to advance because they think they can clear their clients’ names.

For very different reasons, human rights officials and experts in international justice issues, here and elsewhere, also were eager to see the trial take place because of the light it would shed on extraordinary renditions.


In numerous instances, people who were captured in one foreign country for transport to another have claimed they were tortured. The U.S. government says it does not condone torture.

At the time of his abduction, Abu Omar, whose real name is Hassan Osama Nasr, was suspected by Italian authorities of recruiting Muslim youths to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Investigators have said they were about to arrest and indict him when the rendition took place. He remains in Egypt but has suggested he may return to testify in Italy, where he faces arrest.