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Last Updated: Friday, 8 June 2007, 01:37 GMT 02:37 UK
Italy secrets threaten CIA trial
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

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When the first criminal trial involving an "extraordinary rendition" of a terror suspect by the American CIA opens in Milan, there will be significant gaps in the court room.

Twenty-six Americans and six Italians, including the former head of Italy's military intelligence, are accused of kidnapping a Muslim cleric in broad daylight in the centre of Milan four years ago and transporting him against his will to Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured.

But the Americans will all be tried in absentia, as Washington authorities have refused to co-operate with Italian investigators.

Both prosecution and defence lawyers, however, plan to call top-level politicians - including Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi - and intelligence chiefs to give evidence at the trial.

But defence lawyers are expected to call for an immediate adjournment, on the grounds that one of Italy's highest judicial bodies, the Constitutional Court, is not due to give a ruling until September or October over the admissibility of the government's request to set aside the trial on the grounds that state security is involved.

'State secrets'

Both the former government of Silvio Berlusconi and current Prime Minister Romano Prodi have so far declined requests by the Milan judiciary send the American authorities requests for the extradition of the accused to Italy.

Their excuse is state secrecy.

Many Italian commentators have remarked that it would have been impossible for the Americans to have carried out this complex kidnap operation without the knowledge and perhaps the active co-operation of the Italian secret services.

The arrival of President George W Bush in Rome on the same day as the opening of the rendition trial ... is an unexpected further embarrassment for Prime Minister Romano Prodi

The cleric at the centre of this emblematic case is Abu Omar, whose real name is Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.

He is an Egyptian who had been granted political asylum in Italy in 2001.

He was already under investigation for alleged crimes connected with international terrorism - the recruiting of volunteers by Islamic fundamentalist groups - when eyewitnesses saw him being snatched in a Milan street in February 2003 by two men who bundled him into a white van that was driven away at high speed.

The prosecution alleges that Abu Omar was taken to the American airbase at Aviano, where he was put on board a Jetstream aircraft rented by the CIA that flew him to Cairo where, according to his family and friends, he was subjected to frequent and prolonged torture before finally being released by the Egyptian authorities in February 2007.

An Egyptian lawyer representing Abu Omar has already arrived in Milan to attend the trial.

Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar
Abu Omar was allegedly tortured in Egypt after being taken by the CIA

The Italian judge who sent the 26 Americans, including the local CIA station head Robert Seldon Lady, for trial on kidnapping charges carried out an exhaustive investigation into the alleged crime using extensive wiretaps and interviewing dozens of witnesses.

According to court documents the kidnap was meticulously planned and carried out by CIA agents who left Italy shortly after the successful abduction of their victim of "extraordinary rendition".

This is the term used to distinguish the practice of the US in their so called "war on terror" from "legal" rendition.

It involves taking suspects into US custody and delivering them to a third-party state without the suspect ever being on American soil.

Bush visit

The CIA was first granted permission to use rendition in a presidential directive signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, and the practice has grown sharply since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

In January 2005, Swiss senator Dick Marty, representative at the Council of Europe in charge of European investigations into these "renditions", concluded that up to 100 persons had been kidnapped by the CIA in Europe - thus qualifying them as ghost detainees - and then rendered them to a country where they might be tortured.

Dick Marty qualified the abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr in Milan in February 2003 as a "perfect example of extraordinary rendition".

The arrival of President George W Bush in Rome on the same day as the opening of the rendition trial in Milan is an unexpected further embarrassment for Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

A spokesman at the prime minister's office stressed the independence of such august bodies as the Constitutional Court and the Milan judiciary from the executive branch of government.

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