Italian Court of Cassation Reverses Convictions of Italian Intelligence Agents Involved in Bush-Era Extraordinary Rendition

Reuters and AP have reported that Italy’s highest court in criminal matters, the Court of Cassation, reversed the convictions on Monday of five Italian military intelligence personnel for their role in an infamous CIA rendition that took place in Milan in 2003. The case concerned responsibility for the kidnapping of an imam known as Abu Omar (Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr), who was grabbed off the streets of Milan and forcibly transferred by the CIA to Egypt via Germany for interrogation. Abu Omar has said that he was tortured after being sent to Egypt. He was released from Egyptian custody in 2007. In December 2013 an Italian court sentenced him in absentia for terrorism-related crimes.

Nicolo Pollari, former director of SISMI, Italy’s military intelligence agency, had been sentenced by an appeals court in February 2013 to ten years in prison for his role in facilitating the rendition of Abu Omar. This conviction followed an initial acquittal by a trial court. Former deputy director of SISMI, Marco Mancini, faced nine years in prison, and three other SISMI officials were also facing jail time. All had their convictions overturned by the Court of Cassation. Reports indicate that the court ruled that the convictions could not stand since they were based on classified information.

In 2009, 23 Americans were convicted in absentia in Italy for their roles in the rendition operation in Milan. The Court of Cassation upheld these convictions in September 2012. In April 2013, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano pardoned Joseph Romano, a U.S. Air Force officer who was in charge of security at the U.S. air base in Italy where Abu Omar was bundled onto a plane that carried him out of the country. And the most high-profile among the Americans convicted, Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan, was briefly detained in Panama in July 2013 on the basis of an international arrest warrant obtained by the Italian authorities. After being released, he sought a pardon from the Italian president.

The criminal cases against U.S. and Italian personnel were based on evidence uncovered by Italian prosecutors, who managed to identify those responsible for the abduction by collating information from an eyewitness to the abduction, phone call records, hotel receipts, and flight data, among other sources. The convictions have been hailed by human rights organizations as rare instances of accountability for the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, which involved the informal transfer of terrorism suspects to countries where they were known to face a risk of torture. No U.S. intelligence personnel or policymakers have been charged by U.S. law enforcement officials for their role in approving and carrying out the extraordinary rendition program. 

About the Author(s)

Meg Satterthwaite

Professor of Clinical Law at New York University School of Law, Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Director of the Global Justice Clinic Follow her on Twitter (@SatterthwaiteML).