Warrants issued for CIA agents

22 operatives can be arrested anywhere in Europe for kidnapping imam in Italy


ROME -- An Italian court has issued European arrest warrants for 22 CIA operatives accused of kidnapping a radical imam in Milan, expanding the dragnet for the suspects to 25 countries, a prosecutor said yesterday.

The abduction is one of several cases causing a furor in Europe in which U.S. intelligence agencies are suspected of using European soil and airspace to imprison or to transport terror suspects to third countries without judicial authorization. These so-called extraordinary renditions are one of the most controversial elements of the Bush administration's efforts to fight terrorism.

In the Italian case, the 22 CIA operatives, including the Milan station chief, are accused of snatching Hassan Osama Nasr as he walked to a mosque in Milan nearly three years ago. He was spirited away on a secret flight to his native Egypt, where he was imprisoned and, he later told friends, tortured.

Italian prosecutors have been trying to bring the operatives to trial since June, when they first obtained arrest warrants for some of the suspects. Those warrants, however, only covered Italy. Lead prosecutor Armando Spataro said yesterday that a court earlier this week issued the European arrest warrants, which means that the suspects can now be arrested in any of the European Union's 25 member states.

The Italian Justice Ministry has refused to act on a Nov. 10 request from Spataro's office for the extradition from the U.S. of the men and women who allegedly kidnapped the cleric, better known as Abu Omar. Under bilateral conventions, an extradition request for a U.S. citizen must go through the Justice Ministry. But Justice Minister Roberto Castelli answers to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has made it clear he does not want the case to advance.

The matter has been especially embarrassing for Berlusconi, who enthusiastically supports Bush administration policies but has had to publicly deny Italian involvement in the abduction - even as CIA officers in the U.S. told newspapers they were acting with Italian permission.

Berlusconi said this week that although he did not believe the CIA had kidnapped Abu Omar, he thought such an operation was completely justifiable.

"You can't tackle terrorism with a law book in your hand," Berlusconi said.

"If they fight with a sword, you have to defend yourself with a sword. ... When hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk, countries have to use the secret methods and arms available to them to defend those lives."

Berlusconi was speaking to a group of foreign journalists that did not include U.S. newspapers. He added that he did not think there was "any basis in the [Milan] case."

Prosecutor Spataro has also asked that Interpol be instructed to arrest the CIA operatives in non-European countries.

The attorney for the former Milan station chief played down the significance of the new warrants. Daria Pesce said her client, Robert Seldon Lady, was already taking precautions to avoid arrest on foreign soil. "He is a U.S. citizen, and he is in the U.S.," she said by telephone from Milan.

Lady is seeking to extricate himself from criminal proceedings by claiming diplomatic immunity. An Italian judge turned down his request late last month, saying that Lady lost his immunity when he retired and that such serious crimes don't merit immunity. But Pesce said she plans to appeal the decision.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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