In a decisive blow against the illegal U.S. policy of “extraordinary rendition’, Italy’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Cassation, has upheld the conviction of 23 American officials for the abduction of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, in February 2003. The court also enhanced their sentences. Mr. Omar, a political asylee in Italy at the time, was kidnapped by the Central Intelligence Agency in Milan and transferred via Germany to Egypt, where he alleges he was tortured for seven months, often in the presence of American officials. The original trial had taken place in absentia; the Court of Cassation sentenced 22 defendants to seven years and the 23rd, former Milan station head Colonel Robert Seldon Lady, to nine. Upholding the Nuremberg principles, the court refused to accept the plea of many of those convicted that they were merely obeying orders. The court also awarded Mr. Omar € 1 million in damages and his wife half a million. The convicts — 22 of whom are believed to be from the CIA — are probably living in the U.S. and may well not serve their sentences, though they risk arrest if they enter any one of several European countries. U.S. Air Force colonel Joseph L. Romano, who commanded the Aviano Air Base through which Mr. Omar was transferred, plans to challenge his conviction before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as is his right.
The case is significant because it has confirmed the authority of law over criminal conduct by U.S. officials abroad, even if the ostensible purpose for this illegality was the “war on terror”. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks and analysed by Der Spiegel also document how the Italian government turned from craven collaborator to active accomplice, bullying the judiciary at Washington’s behest. All that is history now: the fact that at least one victim of extraordinary rendition is finally getting something resembling justice is a cause for celebration. In the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian national rendered by the U.S. to Syria in 2002, monetary compensation was forthcoming but all efforts at fixing criminal responsibility on the American officials responsible for his removal and subsequent torture have failed with even the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear his appeals. Fortunately, Italian prosecutors and judges have shown a greater fidelity to the cause of justice than their North American or European counterparts. The prosecuting magistrate, who pursued the Omar case with great determination, will almost certainly ask for the extradition of the 23 American convicts. The Italian government must not, at that point, develop cold feet.