“U.S. officials who have thus far evaded any accountability for their role in a global torture program should take today’s development as a warning sign,” said the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Robert Seldon Lady, convicted by an Italian court of the abduction of an Egyptian Islamist cleric who later claimed to have been tortured in Egyptian custody, was arrested in Panama.
Italian media reported that Justice Minister Annamaria Cancellieri has requested Panama to detain Lady provisionally and now has two months to apply for the handover of the fugitive, who was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday she had not seen the reports of Lady’s arrest “and I don’t have anything for you on it.”
Italy is a NATO ally and Panama also enjoys close ties to the United States. Just this week the State Department was praising the Panamanian government for detaining a cargo ship found to be smuggling missile equipment from Cuba to North Korea.
The Center for Constitutional Rights expressed hope that the U.S. government would not exert any pressure in a bid to block Lady’s extradition to Italy.
“While the United States refuses to investigate or prosecute its own officials for torture and other serious breaches of domestic and international law, other countries like Italy have been willing to place the demands of justice above politics,” it said.
“It is time for an end to impunity and the start of a new chapter of accountability for U.S. officials who committed torture.”
Lady, who headed a CIA office in Milan, was one of 26 Americans found guilty in absentia of involvement in abducting Hassan Moustafa Osama Nasr on a street in the northern Italian city and handing him over to Egyptian authorities. Later halted, the practice known as “extraordinary rendition” saw terror suspects transferred to countries abroad which use interrogation methods that critics say amount to torture.
Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, had been suspected of inciting violence in sermons at his mosque in Milan and of recruiting jihadists to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to published accounts, Italian prosecutors opened an investigation into his abduction in 2004 after authorities intercepted a phone call from Nasr – still in Egypt but no longer in custody – to his wife in Italy, in which he described how he landed up in Egypt.
The trial was the first of its kind anywhere involving the rendition program.
Others convicted included the former CIA station chief in Rome, Jeffrey Castelli. He was initially given diplomatic immunity and acquitted but early this year an appeals court in Milan overturned the decision and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment.
All of those convicted were identified by prosecutors as CIA personnel except for U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Romano, who was security chief at the Aviano air base in northern Italy where Nasr was reportedly taken before being flown out of the country.
Last April Italian President Giorgio Napolitano pardoned Romano. The Associated Press quoted his office as saying at the time the action was taken “in hopes of giving a solution to a situation to an affair considered by the United States to be without precedent because of the aspect of convicting a U.S. military officer of NATO for deeds committed on Italian soil.”
Last February the Milan appeals court sentenced former Italian military intelligence chief Niccolo Pollari to 10 years’ imprisonment and his former deputy to nine years for complicity in the Nasr abduction. Pollari had earlier been spared a conviction by a judge citing state security interests.
Lady, who retired from the CIA after the Nasr abduction, left Italy at some stage. A warrant was issued for his arrest in 2007. An Italian newspaper in mid-2009 published an interview quoting him as describing himself as “a soldier in the war on terrorism” and denying the kidnapping was “a criminal operation.”
Italian press reports say Rome sought Interpol’s help in tracking down Lady, although a list of “red notices” on Interpol’s website does not include one for him – or for any of the other Americans convicted in absentia by Italian courts. Queries sent to Interpol had not brought a response by press time.