November 6, 2009.
ROME: An Italian judge has convicted 23 Americans of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan in 2003, a landmark verdict against one of the CIA's most valued anti-terrorism tools - a practice known as extraordinary rendition.
One of those convicted for her role in a US government-backed plot admitted she ''broke the law'' but felt abandoned by her superiors.
Sabrina DeSousa told ABC television in the US that she and 22 other Americans sentenced in absentia ''broke the law'', but that everything she did was ''approved back in Washington''.
''And we are paying for the mistakes right now, whoever authorised and approved this'', she said, adding that she felt ''abandoned and betrayed''.
The court's decision was a victory for Italian anti-terrorism prosecutors and police who spent six years building the case.
The two-year trial exposed details of a secretive world and was the first in the world to challenge the program under which the CIA abducted suspects and sent them covertly to third countries for interrogation.
In February 2003 a clandestine team of US and Italian operatives abducted Osama Hassan Mustafa Nasr, known as Abu Omar, a militant cleric suspected of recruiting fighters for Iraq and Afghanistan. He was flown to a US air base in Germany and then to Egypt, where he claimed to have undergone months of torture and abuse.
The case sparked an international uproar, with the governments of the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and his predecessor trying repeatedly to scuttle the trial.
''I think it is very important for everyone that this trial was completed,'' said Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor.
''The message of this important ruling to nations, governments, institutions, secret services [is that] we cannot use illegal instruments in our effort against terrorism. Our democracies, otherwise, would betray their principles.''
Given that the US Government declined to co-operate with the prosecution, it seemed unlikely that any would spend time in an Italian prison, although the convicted Americans may be at risk if they travel to Europe. The judge issued an eight-year prison sentence for Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan.
Testimony indicated that Lady initially opposed abducting Abu Omar as unnecessary and dangerous but ultimately became the architect of the operation. The other US operatives were given five-year sentences, and the Italians received three-year terms.
Probably because they had clearance from Italian spymasters, the US operatives left a trail of mobile phone calls, credit card charges and photo identification documents. The evidence enabled an elite anti-terrorism unit of the Italian police to assemble a detailed case that became an anatomy of a rendition.
''The Milan court sent a powerful message: the CIA can't just abduct people off the streets,'' said Joanne Mariner, the terrorism program director at Human Rights Watch.
US officials have said spy agencies will continue renditions, albeit with more oversight, because they are an effective tool for fighting terrorism, especially in lawless regions.
Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse