A US soldier went on trial in absentia today in the shooting death of an Italian intelligence agent at a checkpoint in Iraq two years ago, a case that strained relations between Rome and Washington.
The judge immediately adjourned the proceedings against Spc Mario Lozano (aged 37), until May 14 for technical reasons.
The agent, Nicola Calipari, was shot March 4, 2005, on his way to the Baghdad airport shortly after securing the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena. Mr Sgrena and another agent who was driving the car were wounded.
Italy and the United States issued separate reports on the incident.
US authorities have said the vehicle was travelling fast, alarming soldiers who feared an insurgent attack. Italian officials claimed the car was travelling at normal speed and accused the US military of failing to signal there was a checkpoint. It also contended that stress, inexperience and fatigue played a role.
Lozano was indicted in February on charges of murder and attempted murder, but Rome has not sought his extradition. The Pentagon indicated he would not be extradited anyway, saying it considered the incident a “closed matter”.
Although Lozano is not attending the trial, he has defended his actions in recent comments to the US media, saying he had no choice but to fire.
The hearing at a high-security courtroom on Rome’s outskirts was brief and largely dedicated to technical issues.
But in a sign of how emotionally charged the case is, a claim by Lozano’s lawyer that the soldier “doesn’t know anything about this procedure” prompted an outcry in the courtroom.
“It’s unthinkable,” the leading prosecutor, Franco Ionta, told the court.
“It’s an insult to our intelligence,” said Franco Coppi, who is representing Calipari’s widow. “It’s an expression of the arrogance with which Lozano and others on his behalf have approached this trial.”
Lozano’s attorney, Alberto Biffani, made the claim in requesting a postponement. Mr Biffani, who was only recently appointed, also said he needed to study the case further.
The adjournment was eventually granted for a technicality relating to a request by Mr Sgrena’s lawyer to attach a civil lawsuit against the US defence department to the case.
But Lozano’s decision not to attend the trial came under the spotlight.
Mr Sgrena, the kidnapped journalist, said his absence – combined with what she said was a lack of US co-operation in the investigation – represented an obstacle to justice.
The death of Mr Calipari, hailed as a hero in Italy, angered Italians, most of whom are opposed to the Iraq war.
In a separate case, also an irritant to bilateral relations, Italian prosecutors have indicted 26 Americans, all but one believed to be CIA agents, accused of kidnapping an Egyptian terror suspect in Milan as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme.