Italian judge issues warrant for 13 CIA agents

A judge in Italy, one of the United States’ closest allies in the “war on terror,” has issued an arrest warrant for 13 American CIA agents in connection with the kidnapping of an Italian citizen.

Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, a Muslim cleric accused of being a member of a terrorist group, was kidnapped in 2003 and sent to Egypt in what is believed to have been part of the CIA’s practice of “extraordinary rendition.” The practice allows the U.S. to sidestep its Geneva Conventions obligations forbidding torture, by sending suspects to other countries where they are then tortured. Egypt is one of those countries.

According to several published reports, Nasr was captured by unknown persons and thrown into a white van while walking along a Milan street from his home to a mosque. He was taken to the Aviano U.S.-Italian base in Italy, then to a U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany, and finally to Egypt.

A CIA spokesman told the World that the agency had “no comment,” and the Italian Embassy in Washington said that it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

A missing persons case was opened on Nasr in 2003. In April 2004, however, Italian antiterrorism agents recorded a phone call made by Nasr to his wife. In the call, he told her that he had been taken to an American base in Italy and then sent to Egypt, where he was stripped naked, subjected to electrical shocks and held in freezing temperatures.

In response, Italian authorities, who had been investigating Nasr for possible terrorist activities, asked Egypt for information, to no avail.

Reuters reported that the Italian government subsequently identified some of the suspects — CIA agents routinely use aliases — but none of them were still in the country. Reportedly, one of them is a former U.S. consul to Italy. Agence Presse France said the Italian authorities have photos of everyone involved, as well as other details, such as cell phone logs and credit card records.

Eventually, the antiterrorism department of the Italian state prosecutor’s office asked Judge Chiara Nobili to issue arrest warrants for the U.S. operatives, and, based on the compelling evidence, the request was granted.

Italy has officially asked the U.S. for assistance, but a June 27 article in The New York Times suggests such cooperation is unlikely. The Times said it was likely that the U.S. would use technicalities to avoid extradition of the 13.

The incident comes at a time when relations between the two allies have been strained. American soldiers killed an Italian citizen escorting a reporter recently released by Iraqi kidnappers, and opinion polls in Italy are increasingly turning against the government of Silvio Berlusconi, a close ally of the Bush administration.

Many in Italy say the issue is not whether Nasr was engaged in terrorist activities — he was already under watch by Italian authorities. The problem is, they say, that the U.S., on top of damaging the terrorism investigation, violated Italian sovereignty. Also, many in Italy are unhappy with the prospect of their citizens being taken away by the United States to be tortured.

The arrests ordered by Italy are part of a recent backlash against the extraordinary rendition policy. Sweden has recently taken up the issue, and the Canadian government set up hearings after one of its citizens was captured by American agents without Canada’s knowledge and taken to Syria for questioning.

“Prohibition of torture is non-negotiable,” said U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on June 26, the International Day of Support for Victims of Torture. “This includes an absolute ban, in accordance with Article 3 of the [Geneva] Conventions, on transferring any person to another jurisdiction where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person is at risk of torture.”