MILAN, Italy - An Italian judge has ordered the arrest of 13 CIA agents who investigators believe kidnapped a radical Egyptian imam from the streets of Milan and bundled him off to Cairo, where he said he was tortured.
As part of the probe, on Thursday night Italian police raided the Italian home of an American man identified in arrest warrants as the former CIA station chief here and confiscated a computer, disks and other documents, judicial sources said.
The warrants name 13 American agents from a group of 19 men and women who authorities here believe pursued and snatched Hassan Osama Nasr, a radical cleric better known as Abu Omar, nearly two years ago.
Officials, who announced yesterday that warrants had been issued, said none of the agents is in Italy any longer and no one was taken into custody.
The Abu Omar case is an example of an "extraordinary rendition," a controversial practice employed by U.S. authorities against suspected militants with increasing frequency since the Sept. 11 attacks:
U.S. counter-terrorism agents seize and transport a suspect in one country to a third country without seeking court permission. Human rights groups say treatment of the suspect in the third country can be brutal.
Italy is one of three European countries, along with Sweden and Germany, that are examining alleged renditions on their soil. However, it is highly unusual for a country friendly to the United States to attempt to prosecute its secret agents.
The suspected agents were identified, with names and addresses, through cellular phone records and hotel and rental-car receipts from the weeks they were in Milan preparing and executing the operation, three officials said in interviews over the past several days.
"We will be asking for judicial assistance from both Egyptian and U.S. authorities," Milan's top prosecutor, Manlio Claudio Minale, said in announcing the arrest orders.
Another leading prosecutor, Armando Spataro, opened the Italian investigation earlier this year and sought and secured the arrest warrants. "I think it's nearly impossible to arrest anyone," Spataro said in an interview. "The important thing is to get to the truth."
He said he hoped to be able to ask for the extradition of the agents and to take depositions from witnesses in the United States.
It was not clear to what extent the operation was approved by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. ally. Even if Berlusconi's government gave its blessing, the Italian judiciary frequently acts independently, and government approval of the operation would not necessarily have stopped prosecutors from pursuing the case.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome and the State Department declined to comment on the case yesterday. Adam Ereli, deputy State Department spokesman, said the government would not comment in the future on any aspect of the case.
The CIA has defended the practice of extraordinary rendition, saying that it receives assurances from the third countries that the suspects will be treated well.
Several U.S. officials said the case was extraordinarily sensitive, given Washington's close working relationship with Italy on many issues. One former U.S. intelligence official said the prospect of Italy issuing arrest warrants had been discussed privately within the agency for months, and CIA officials in Italy were told six months ago to clear out in anticipation of possible legal action.
A current U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Italian warrants would likely be considered valid by Europol, meaning that the agents could be arrested anywhere in Europe.
"We have a very solid case," a senior Italian justice official said.
"I realize this won't change U.S. policy, but it will be embarrassing, at the least," said another Italian law enforcement official familiar with the case.
Details of the Abu Omar case were first reported March 3 in the Los Angeles Times. Spataro requested arrest warrants March 22; Judge Chiara Nobile issued them late Thursday.
The abduction of Abu Omar forced Italian authorities to abort a case they were building against him. His arrest was imminent at the time, they said.
Italian authorities suspected Abu Omar of helping to build a militant network in Europe, of recruiting volunteers to fight in Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion, and of possibly plotting a bombing. He was a veteran of wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan and was using his pulpit in Milan to raise money for the jihadist cause, Italian officials said, based on information from wiretaps, including one at a mosque where he preached.
According to court papers, he was recorded in numerous conversations with other militant suspects who have since been prosecuted. In one, he is heard praising a man later accused of recruiting suicide bombers for his success in reaching out to "the youth."
Abu Omar's disappearance angered several officials who felt that they had always cooperated fully with the U.S. war on terrorism, only to be trampled on in this operation.
"Kidnapping Abu Omar was not only a crime against the state of Italy, but also it did great damage to the war on terrorism," Spataro, the prosecutor, said. "We could have continued the investigation and found evidence on other people. He would be on trial by now instead of missing."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.