World News

Italian judge says CIA trial continues

Posted May 20, 2009 6:58 a.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2009 5:15 p.m. EDT

— The trial of 26 Americans and seven Italians accused of orchestrating a CIA-led kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric will proceed despite an Italian Supreme Court ruling that barred key evidence as classifed, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The two-year trial is the first by any government over the CIA's so-called extraordinary rendition program of transferring suspects overseas for interrogation. Human rights advocates charge that renditions were the agency's way to outsource torture of prisoners to countries where it is permitted.

Successive Italian governments have denied any involvement in the Feb. 17, 2003 abduction of Egyptian cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street. Prosecutors say Nasr was transported in a van to a joint U.S.-Italian base in northern Italy, flown to a U.S. air base in Germany and onward to Egypt where he said he was tortured. He has since been released without charge.

There are allegations the kidnapping involved a company based at the Johnston County Airport. Aero Contractors has been linked to CIA operations to fly in and grab terror suspects around the world.

Judge Oscar Magi rejected defense motions aimed at stopping the trial, and said it will proceed next week with the classified evidence expunged from the proceedings as ruled by Italy's Supreme Court.

Defense lawyers predicted speedy proceedings as the ruling Wednesday also disallowed most of their witnesses - including Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor Romano Prodi - because their testimony would inevitably touch on classified data. The prosecution has closed its case.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro welcomed the decision to continue the trial, though he disagreed in principle with the high court's decision to remove evidence. The prosecution has argued that it did not violate any state secrets in gathering evidence, and that any evidence relating to a criminal act cannot be considered classified.

"We need to verify if the obstacles that the Supreme Court placed can be overcome to arrive at the truth," Spataro said, adding that certain evidence will have to be "surgically removed."

Spataro said, for example, that the ruling will allow the inclusion of most of a statement by Luciano Pironi, a carabinieri officer who acknowledged participating in the kidnapping. The ruling strikes Pironi's tesimony any reference to how the CIA and Italian intelligence operated, but leaves untouched his statment that the CIA Milan station chief Bob Seldon Lady asked him to join the operation, Spataro said.

Defense lawyers were mixed in their reaction. Luigi Panella, a lawyer for the former deputy chief of Italian military intelligence Marco Mancini said the exclusion of the evidence dealt a fatal blow to the prosecution's case.

But the lawyer for Mancini's former boss, Nicolo Pollari, said the ruling made it impossible to prove his client's innocence.

Pollari's defense wanted to call Berlusconi, Prodi and other top officials "demonstrate incontrovertibly that Pollari had nothing to do with the presumed kidnapping," lawyer Nicola Madia said.

"The trial is a dead end," Madia said. "It will continue only as a formality."

Spataro said that it was already established earlier in the case that diplomatic immunity does not apply because the potential penalty of up to eight years in jail exceeds the five-year maximum on invoking diplomatic privileges in Italy.