By AIDAN LEWIS in The News Sentinel
ROME – A judge has rejected an appeal by a former CIA station chief in Milan against an arrest warrant issued for his alleged role in the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric, ruling that he was not protected by diplomatic immunity.
Italian judges have issued arrest warrants for 22 purported CIA agents, including the former station chief Robert Seldon Lady, accused of involvement in the kidnapping of cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr.
The judge on Monday rejected arguments by Seldon Lady’s lawyer, Daria Pesce, who claimed that he was protected under international treaty and Italian law, and that evidence of his involvement in any alleged abduction was weak.
Prosecutors claimed Nasr’s abduction was a serious violation of Italian sovereignty, and said it hindered Italian terrorism investigations. They reconstructed the alleged operation through cell phone traffic and other evidence, contending that Seldon Lady played a central role.
They have sought the extradition of the 22 suspects, and the Italian Justice Ministry is deciding whether to press the case with Washington.
Prosecutors claim that Nasr, believed to belong to an Islamic terror group, was abducted on a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, before being flown to Egypt, where he was reportedly tortured. He is believed to still be there.
Pesce contended that Seldon Lady’s work as an intelligence officer accredited at the U.S. Consulate protected him.
But Milan Judge Enrico Manzi ruled that Seldon Lady lost immunity when he left his post in August 2004, and that in any case consular officials could be arrested for grave crimes, according to court documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
He said that consular officials did enjoy protection, “but always within the limits of international law. Within these limits, naturally, is the principle of the sovereignty of the host state that cannot allow on its territory the use of force by a foreign state that outside every control of the political and judicial authorities.”
Neither Seldon Lady, who owns a home in Italy, nor any of the other suspects has been arrested, with all of them believed to be out of the country.
Pesce said Seldon Lady was in the United States. She said she planned to appeal Manzi’s decision.
Manzi noted in his ruling that there had been contacts between Seldon Lady’s phone and others used by suspects believed to have carried out the kidnapping.
The judge said evidence from a raid on Seldon Lady’s home, turning up among other evidence a photo of Nasr and records of Internet searches to plan the route of Nasr’s transfer from Milan, “have made the picture of evidence against him even more complete.”
Nasr’s alleged abduction was purportedly part of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, in which terrorism suspects are transferred to third countries without court approval, subjecting them to possible ill-treatment.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s government, a strong U.S. ally, has denied it had any prior knowledge of the alleged kidnapping. The United States has consistently declined comment on the case.