Judge postpones CIA rendition trial

The first trial involving the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme opened in Italy today, without the presence of any of the 26 American defendants accused of kidnapping an Egyptian terror suspect.

After ruling on several motions, Judge Oscar Magi postponed the trial until June 18 so he could consider a defence request to suspend the proceedings until Italy’s Constitutional Court rules on several matters related to the case later this year.

The trial has irritated the historically robust US-Italian relationship, and coincided with the arrival in Rome of US President George Bush.

Italy’s government has asked the country’s highest court to throw out the indictments against the Americans – all but one of them believed to be CIA agents – accused of abducting Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street on February 17, 2003.

The constitutional court is expected to consider that and another similar appeal later this year. Magi said he would consider defence requests to suspend the hearing until after the high court rules.

In today’s hearing, Magi did issue one ruling, allowing Nasr and his wife to be listed as injured parties in the case. However, he rejected a bid by lawyers for Nasr’s wife to name the CIA and the Italian intelligence agency as being responsible for the abduction. Such a move could have allowed the agencies to be responsible for damages if they were awarded.

In addition to the Americans, seven Italians were also indicted in the case, including Nicolo Pollari, the former chief of military intelligence. Pollari, who was not present today, has denied any involvement by Italian intelligence in the abduction.

Pollari’s lawyer, Titta Madia, said he wanted a suspension in the trial pending the constitutional court ruling, so that both sides know which evidence can be used.

“It is in our interest that the trial proceeds as quickly as possible,” Madia told reporters before the hearing began. “In general, Pollari would like to arrive at an acquittal as soon as possible, but we need to have certainty about which evidence we can use.”

A trial has the potential to publicly air details about the US renditions - moving terrorism suspects from country to country without public legal proceedings – a consequence that has been heralded by critics of the practice. It also has the power to embarrass the intelligence community over the handling of a highly secret operation.

In a report released in Paris today, Council of Europe investigator Dick Marty accused Germany and Italy of obstructing investigations into alleged secret detentions by the CIA.

Italian defendant Luciano di Gregori, who worked at the Italian intelligence agency at the time of Nasr’s abduction, professed his innocence.

“I have been doing this work for 33 years,” he told reporters. “I did it with my head held high and in the full light of day. I have nothing to hide.”

Italian prosecutors say Nasr – suspected of recruiting fighters for radical Islamic causes but who had not been charged with any crime at the time of his disappearance – was taken to US bases in Italy and Germany before being transferred to Egypt, where he was imprisoned for four years. Nasr, who was released on February 11, said he was tortured.

Nasr’s lawyer travelled from Cairo to attend the trial opening; prosecutors have listed Nasr on their list of more than 120 witnesses.

Nasr’s Italian lawyer, Carmelo Scambia, said his client wanted to travel to Italy to participate in the trial, despite a pending arrest warrant issued against him by Italian authorities after he was taken to Egypt.

“He has declared he wants to be present for the proceedings,” Scambia said, although he added that Nasr was having trouble obtaining the necessary travel documents in Egypt.

Lawyers for Pollari have included on their witness list former premier Silvio Berlusconi – who was in office at the time of Nasr’s disappearance – and current premier Romano Prodi, lawyers involved in the case said. The same request was denied by a different judge during the preliminary hearing phase.

The 26 Americans have left Italy, and a senior US official has said they would not be turned over for prosecution even if Rome requests it. Prodi’s government has so far not made a decision.

The start of the trial coincides with the arrival of Bush today for talks with the pope and Italy’s premier and president.

Relations between Rome and Washington also have been strained by the trial of a US soldier accused of killing an Italian intelligence officer in Baghdad in 2005 as well as Italy’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq and reluctance to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan.

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