10:35:26 EST Dec 23, 2005
ROME (AP) - A judge has issued European arrest warrants for 22 purported CIA operatives in connection with the alleged kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric from a Milan street in 2003, a prosecutor said Friday.
Armando Spataro said the warrants allowed for the arrest of the suspects in any of the 25 European Union member countries. Previously, Italy had issued arrest warrants for the 22 inside Italy.
Daria Pesce, a lawyer for one of the 22, played down the significance of the warrants but acknowledged they meant the suspects could no longer travel to Europe without risking arrest.
Spataro has already sought the extradition of the 22 from the United States. However, the request has remained with Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, who has sought more court documentation on the case before making any decision on whether to forward it to Washington.
Earlier this week, Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a top U.S. ally, suggested the government may not push the prosecutors' request with Washington saying, "I don't think there is any basis in the case."
Castelli, for his part, has also questioned Spataro's motives in pursuing the arrests, suggesting the prosecutor was a leftist militant and anti-American.
Milan's chief prosecutor responded by saying he fully supported Spataro, the investigation and its findings.
The 22 people allegedly were involved in the kidnapping of cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar.
The cleric, believed to belong to an Islamic terror group, was allegedly abducted on a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, before being flown to Egypt, where he was reportedly tortured.
The operation was believed part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program in which terrorism suspects are transferred to third countries where some allegedly are subjected to torture.
Prosecutors have identified one of the suspects as Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan who has since returned to the United States.
Lady's lawyer, Pesce, said that even if Castelli forwarded the extradition request, the U.S. would "never" allow the suspects to be extradited.
Pesce had previously sought to have the Italian arrest warrant for Lady revoked, contending that her client should be protected by diplomatic immunity.
That appeal was turned down by a Milan judge who said Lady lost his immunity when he left his post in 2004, and that consular officials could be prosecuted for grave crimes anyway.
Prosecutors say the cleric's abduction was a serious violation of Italian sovereignty, and that it had hindered Italian terrorism investigations.
The case has soured Italy's relations with the United States. The Italian government has vigorously denied any prior knowledge of the alleged abduction.
U.S. authorities have consistently declined to comment on the purported abduction.
Earlier this month, Berlusconi said Italy had no evidence of illegal CIA activity on its territory, without referring to the probe into Nasr's alleged kidnapping.
© The Canadian Press, 2005
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