MILAN, (AFP) – Italian secret service officials were to begin answering charges of colluding with their US counterparts in the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian imam from a Milan street.
The abduction was part of the CIA’s covert “secret rendition” programme under which terror suspects were transferred outside the judicial process to third countries known to practise torture.
The former head of Italian military intelligence, Nicolo Pollari, who was forced to quit over the affair, is among the seven Italian defendants in the trial, two of whom are accused only of aiding and abetting the abduction.
Successive Italian governments have declined to seek the extradition of the 26 US defendants in the case, 25 CIA agents and a US air force colonel, who are being tried in absentia.
Osama Hassan Nasr, an imam better known as Abu Omar, was snatched from a Milan street on February 17, 2003.
He was transferred to a high-security prison outside Cairo, where he was held for four years. After his release in February 2007, he spoke of torture and humiliation during his incarceration.
His seizure was thought to be among scores of secret abductions around the world since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The landmark trial will finally get under way after government lawyers sought to have it thrown out as a threat to national security.
The issue went before Italy’s Constitutional Court, which agreed that part of the investigation had violated state secrecy provisions but said the prosecution could use evidence obtained correctly.
Lead prosecutor Armando Spataro said the excluded evidence was not crucial to the prosecution’s case.
The imam’s suspected captors failed to take many standard precautions, notably speaking openly on cell phones, leaving investigators in Milan to suspect that the Americans had cleared their intentions with senior Italian intelligence officials.
Last week Judge Oscar Magi ruled that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor Romani Prodi would not have to testify in the trial, saying their testimony would be “superfluous” and might compromise state secrecy.
The kidnapping took place during staunch US ally Berlusconi’s second stint as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006, and he insists that he was never made aware of the operation.
Prodi’s subsequent centre-left government followed Berlusconi’s policy of refusing to seek the extradition of the Americans accused in the case, which is among several that have clouded bilateral ties in recent years.
Abu Omar, now 47, said he was on his way to his mosque in Milan when he was abducted. He is presumed to have been taken to the US air base in Aviano, northeastern Italy, then flown to Cairo from a US base in Germany.
Once in Cairo, Abu Omar said he was held in a secret service facility where he was manhandled and submitted to electric charges.
Italian prosecutors suspect the former cleric of having fought in Afghanistan and being involved in recruiting fighters to go to Iraq. Abu Omar has denied the allegations through his lawyer.
Spataro had been building a potential terrorism case against Abu Omar for months before the kidnapping and had secured convictions of a number of his acquaintances.
The Italian prosecutor is known for his work against the left-wing militant group the Red Brigades that was active in the 1970s.