Italy’s justice minister accused prosecutors Thursday of pressuring him to request the extradition of purported CIA operatives accused of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric on a Milan street in 2003.
The prosecutors have accused 22 Americans of kidnapping the cleric, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, a terrorist suspect also known as Abu Omar. They contend he was snatched by the CIA and spirited away to a U.S.-Italian air base, flown to Germany and then to Egypt, where he says he was tortured.
The operation is believed to be part of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” strategy to transfer terrorism suspects to third countries where some allegedly are subject to torture.
Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli denounced a letter sent by prosecutors urging him to act on their extradition request as “unlawful pressure.”
“The interests of the state are on the line,” Castelli told journalists in an apparent reference to U.S.-Italian relations which were soured by the Italian probe of the kidnapping.
Castelli and Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. ally, have suggested they may be unwilling to push the case because it could hurt ties.
Among those sought by the prosecutors is a former CIA station chief in Milan who has since returned to the United States.
Milan Prosecutor Armando Spataro said in an interview Thursday that the time allowed for the probe was running out, and insisted the prosecutors were justified in sending the letter.
“Under Italian law, the minister, whether in case of refusal, or delay, must respond” to prosecutors’ request on extradition, Spataro said.
He noted that their extradition request was made nearly four months ago.
Castelli “can do what he wants – reject it if he likes – but he must reply,” Spataro said.