Has Italy sent a message?

November 9, 2009

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that the conviction in Italy of 23 Americans, most of them CIA employees, for the kidnapping and torture of an Egyptian cleric is some good news, for a change, on the issue of torture.

YOU MAY recall the case. The CIA was accused of a 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric, Abu Omar, from the streets of Milan, Italy. He was rendered to Egypt where he was tortured.

A courageous Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, had been pursuing the case since that time over the objections of the Italian government. Luckily, in Italy, the prosecutors are independent of the political branches of the government, and Spataro, despite many attempted roadblocks, went ahead.

Now the court has come back with convictions and jail sentences. Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA station chief in Milan got eight years, and 22 other Americans got five years each. Utterly remarkable! The only problem is none of the defendants showed up for trial, and Italy was unwilling to ask for their extradition.

Despite this, the convictions are really earth-shattering news, although the New York Times asserts they will have "little practical effect." Just ask the 23 convicted operatives if they agree with that sentiment. They are considered fugitives in 25 countries of the European Schengen area, and are subject to arrest. Upon arrest, they will be sent to Italy to serve out their jail sentences.

Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro
Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro

Already, one of those convicted is suing the U.S., claiming that she should have received diplomatic immunity. And I wonder what those agents think about Stephen R. Kappes, who at the time of the kidnapping was the assistant director of the CIA's clandestine branch, and is said to have planned the rendition? He was not a defendant, having not been in Italy, but is currently President Obama's second-ranking CIA official. So he is off the hook, at least for the moment, and can still enjoy Rome and Paris. So no wonder a U.S. spokesmen said the administration was "disappointed" in the verdicts.

Just think about the message these convictions send for the future, even if these agents do not spend a day in jail. If you were a CIA agent, would you kidnap again? Would you waterboard?

This is why prosecutions work. They act as deterrence. No matter what happens now, no matter what the Obama administration does to get rid of these convictions--e.g., getting Italy to grant clemency--a clear message has been sent. Committing human rights atrocities, even if done in the name of national security and for the most powerful state in the world, does not give you immunity.

I don't think all such lawbreaking will cease, not by a long shot. However, the Italian courts have taken a powerful first step toward giving substance to the expression that no one is above the law.

The lesson the Obama administration should learn is that unless and until it holds U.S. officials accountable, other counties will.

The Schengen countries where the U.S. officials will be arrested include: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

First published at the Just Left Web site.

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