Italian Judge Indicts 26 Americans

Friday, February 16th 2007, 6:47 am
By: News On 6

MILAN, Italy (AP) _ An Italian judge on Friday indicted 26 Americans and five Italians in the first criminal trial over the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.

The judge set the trial date for June 8. Prosecutors allege that five Italian intelligence officials worked with the Americans _ almost all CIA agents _ to abduct terror suspect Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003.

Nasr was allegedly transferred by vehicle to the Aviano Air Force base near Venice and then by air to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany and on to Egypt, where critics say he was tortured.

All but one of the American suspects have been identified as CIA agents, including the former station chiefs in Rome and Milan. The other is a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at the time at Aviano.

Even if a request is made for the Americans' extradition _ a move bound to irritate U.S.-Italian relations _ it was unlikely that the CIA agents would be turned over for trial abroad.

The CIA has refused to comment on the case, while the former Italian chief of military intelligence has insisted that Italian intelligence had no role. The only defendant to appear during the preliminary hearing, Nicolo Pollari, told the judge that he was unable to defend himself properly because documents clarifying his position had been excluded from the proceedings because they contain state secrets.

The case has put an uncomfortable spotlight on intelligence operations as prosecutors press the Italian government to seek the extradition of the U.S. agents. The previous government of Silvio Berlusconi refused, and Premier Romano Prodi's center-left government has yet to make its decision.

All of the U.S. agents have court-appointed lawyers, who have acknowledged having no contact with their clients.

``It's a defense in the dark,'' said Guido Meroni, who represents six Americans accused of helping organize the abduction. Meroni has argued that the evidence connecting his clients to Nasr's disappearance was circumstantial, based on phone records and their presence in hotels in Italy during the period before the abduction.

Prosecutors say the alleged kidnapping operation was a breach of Italian sovereignty that compromised Italy's own anti-terrorism efforts.

Nasr was under investigation for terrorism-related activities at the time of his abduction, and Milan prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest more than two years after he disappeared from Milan, while he was in Egyptian custody.

Nasr, who allegedly was tortured during four years' imprisonment in Egypt, was released earlier this week from jail. His lawyer in Egypt said in an interview on Italian state TV that he wants to return to Italy, where he had been granted the status of political refugee.

Prosecutors elsewhere in Europe are moving ahead with cases aimed at the CIA program.

This week, the Swiss government approved prosecutors' plans to investigate the flight that allegedly took Nasr over Swiss air space from Italy to Germany.

And a Munich prosecutor recently issued arrest warrants for 13 people in connection with another alleged CIA-orchestrated kidnapping, this one of a German citizen who says he was abducted in December 2003 at the Serbian-Macedonia border and flown to Afghanistan.