Italy has been condemned by the European court of human rights for its role in the 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian imam by the CIA, in a legal decision that serves as a stark reminder of the role US allies played in the illegal Bush-era counter-terrorism programme.
The unanimous ruling comes as an American former CIA official named Sabrina de Sousa remains held in Portugal awaiting possible deportation to Italy over her role in the “extraordinary rendition” of the imam, known as Abu Omar.
The European court decision on Tuesday shone a fresh light on the case, which remains the only thorough legal examination of one of the most contentious counter-terrorism measures used under former US president George W Bush.
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr – known as Abu Omar – was kidnapped by US officials in 2003 while walking down a street in Milan, allegedly with the knowledge and help of at least some Italian authorities. Omar, a radical cleric had been given political asylum in Italy in 2001, but fell under the suspicion of Italian and, separately, US authorities for his links to fundamentalist networks.
He was then flown to Cairo via the Ramstein US airbase in Germany and was handed over to Egyptian authorities, who allegedly detained, interrogated and tortured him until his initial release in April 2004.
The case received international attention after Armando Spataro, an Italian prosecutor, took the rare step of investigating and prosecuting the kidnapping, making it the first closely documented case involving the highly classified counter-terrorism programme.
On Tuesday the court ordered Italy to pay €70,000 (£55,000) in compensation to Abu Omar, and €15,000 (£12,000) to his wife.
De Sousa and 21 other CIA operatives and high-ranking officials were ultimately convicted by an Italian court in absentia for Abu Omar’s kidnapping. But until De Sousa was detained by Portuguese authorities last October, none had ever been held by any European law enforcement agencies.
Members of the Italian Sismi, the military intelligence agency, were also convicted in the case but their convictions were overturned by Italy’s high court on the grounds of “state secrecy”.
Now, the Italian government faces condemnation by the European court, and De Sousa’s case in Portugal has raised the prospect that she could be sent to Italy by Portugal to face her four-year jail sentence.
Even though Italian courts found the officials guilty, successive Italian governments have steered clear from this case and never pursued extradition. De Sousa’s decision to leave the safe confines of the US and travel to Portugal, where she has family but was facing a European warrant for her detention, has changed that equation. It could make the 60-year-old the first former CIA employee to serve time in jail for actions undertaken for the agency.
“I kind of decided that this issue of mine needed to be resolved and had exhausted everything possible in the US to do so. But mainly [I left the US] because I was seeing the prospect of never seeing my family here again,” De Sousa said in a recent interview, conducted over Skype.
De Sousa resigned from the CIA in 2009 and has in recent years become one of the agency’s most potent critics. While she has said she had some knowledge of the extraordinary rendition in the early planning stages, she denies ever playing a significant role in the operation. Her case highlights the “Washington story of where junior officers have been hung out to dry”, she said.
“This operation was sanctioned by the White House so there is an expectation … of being protected, because you are representing the country and you are doing what the US considers its national security interest,” she said.
De Sousa insists she should have been protected because she was technically in Italy as a diplomat with the State Department, not the CIA.
When pressed about whether Italy had a right to enforce laws in its own country, she said: “Absolutely Italy has the right to enforce the law in its own country. And other countries have the right to enforce laws also against Italian citizens.”
It was a reference to an ongoing diplomatic feud between Italy and India, in which Italy has argued that it should have jurisdiction over a shooting case involving two Italian marines who accidentally shot two Indian fishermen in international waters. India has said it should have jurisdiction.
De Sousa entered Portugal last year on a Portuguese passport without incident, but was stopped at the airport when she tried to leave Portugal to go to India.
She was held overnight at police headquarters in Lisbon, and her passport confiscated.
“It was also kind of ironic because in my previous job, I had worked with the police in Italy, on counter-terrorism – the first group we trained in Italy was the equivalent of the Swat team. So I think these [Portuguese] officers also recognised that,” she said. “Here I am kind of being detained as a criminal while in the past I was working just across the seat from the very same officers working on all these issues.”
A judge in Portugal has ruled that De Sousa ought to be sent to Italy to formally be sentenced, but that decision is now pending before an appeal.
For now, officials in Italy say the decision about her possible deportation is out of their hands, but experts who have followed the complicated case say the development puts the government of the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi – who are most likely not keen on putting a former CIA officer in jail – in a difficult and awkward position.
There is also another option: she could technically be pardoned by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, who partially pardoned the former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, who was also convicted alongside De Sousa, before Christmas last year. Another US citizen, Betnie Medero, was also pardoned.
Mattarella has not yet acted on De Sousa’s clemency request, however.
In her interview, De Sousa pointed out that most of her co-defendants were convicted under CIA aliases, and therefore remain free to travel under their real identities.