ROME -- A former CIA base chief in Italy who was convicted in absentia in the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric from the streets of Milan, has been arrested, an Italian Justice Ministry official said Thursday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to say where and when Robert Seldon Lady’s arrest took place.
The Italian news agency Adnkronos quoted police in Panama as saying that Lady was taken into custody near the border with Costa Rica.[Link in Italian]
Other Italian news outlets reported that he was arrested while entering Panama from Costa Rica and that Italian authorities now have two months to request Lady’s extradition to Italy. [Link in Italian]
However, Panama’s security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, and the National Police press office told the Associated Press in Panama City that they were not aware of the detention.
Lady, the former Milan base chief, was sentenced last year by an Italian appeals court to nine years in prison in the kidnapping of the extremist cleric in 2003.
The cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was seized under a procedure known as “extraordinary rendition,” in which the CIA secretly detained terrorism suspects abroad and transferred them to third countries for interrogation. He was flown by the CIA to Egypt, where, he says, he was tortured, and released in 2004.
Lady was one of 23 Americans tried for their alleged roles in the operation, all but one of them CIA officers or contractors.
Three other Americans indicted in the case, including Jeffrey Castelli, the former CIA station chief in Rome, were given diplomatic immunity and acquitted in 2009. But this year, a Milan court vacated the acquittals and convicted them in absentia. Castelli, who works for a Los Angeles firm, PhaseOne Communications, was sentenced to seven years in prison and the other two to six years.
In December, Italy’s then-justice minister Paola Severino authorized an international warrant for the arrest of Lady, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper. But warrants were not issued for other CIA operatives convicted in the case because their prison sentences did not meet the minimum for an extradition request. [Link in Italian]
In April, Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, pardoned U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph L. Romano, who had been convicted of involvement in the kidnapping.
Italy’s secret services were complicit in the operation, Italian courts found, and a former intelligence chief, Niccolo Polari, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in February. His former deputy got nine years, and three other officials got six years each. In the Italian system, the men remain free while the verdicts and sentences are appealed.
Nasr was suspected of recruiting militants to fight in Iraq and was under surveillance by Italian authorities when he was thrown into a CIA van and driven to Aviano, the U.S. Air Force base in Italy.
An independent Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, uncovered the CIA’s involvement in the kidnapping through a detailed analysis of cellphone records and other trails that former CIA officers attribute to sloppy tradecraft.
In a 2007 interview with GQ Magazine, Lady, who spent 24 years with the CIA, expressed despair over his plight, including the fact that he had to abandon a house in Italy where he and his wife had planned to retire.
“No one’s called me for support,” he said. “No one has helped.”
[For the record, 3:03 p.m. PST: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly spelled the last name of Panama’s security minister as Molino. The correct spelling is Mulino.]
Special correspondent Kington reported form Rome and staff writer Dilanian reported from Aspen, Colo.