Italy may put CIA agents on trial in absentia

By Phil Stewart from Reuters

Milan prosecutors expect to launch procedures within a month that could put 22 CIA agents accused of kidnapping a Muslim cleric in Milan on trial in absentia, a senior judicial source said.

The source, who asked not to be named, said prosecutors were growing tired of perceived foot-dragging by Washington and Rome over requests that would advance their investigation — one of several European probes into suspected U.S. covert operations.

The United States has still not responded to a request in January by Italy for judicial assistance in the case, which could potentially allow Italian prosecutors to travel there to question suspects and gather evidence. Neither has Italy’s government responded to a request in November from prosecutors to seek the extradition of the agents from the United States.

If no helpful action has been taken by early March — as appears increasingly likely — then prosecutors will close their investigation, the well-placed source said.

“The next step will be to go to trial,” he said.

The European Parliament and the Council of Europe are watching the Italian case carefully as they move ahead with their own investigations into suspected U.S. anti-terrorism operations, including running secret prisons in eastern Europe. German and Swiss prosecutors are also looking into other accusations of U.S. covert transport of detainees, a process known as “rendition.”

An Italian trial of the 22 agents could potentially open a wealth of evidence in the case to the public, showing how terrorism suspect Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was grabbed off a Milan street in 2003 in broad daylight.

Prosecutors will count on the de facto testimony of Nasr himself, who briefly recounted the ordeal in conversations picked up in an Italian phone-tap. He has said he was flown to Egypt and tortured during interrogation.

Italian investigators have accused Nasr of ties to al Qaeda and a Milan judge has issued a warrant for his arrest. He has been held by Egyptian authorities, his lawyer has said. Even if the 22 CIA agents are tried, investigations into the kidnapping will continue. More CIA accomplices in the kidnapping will be identified, the source said, thanks to evidence they left behind.

At the heart of the prosecutors’ case are cell phone records. Following the web of conversations, the investigators were able to identify a network they say planned the kidnapping.

“Not all of the telephones used have yet been identified to specific people, so the investigations continue,” he said.

All of the 22 CIA agents are likely to have left Europe since Italy issued arrest warrants against them last year which are valid across the entire 25-nation European Union.