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Italian court convicts Mumbai-born CIA spy

By The Rediff News Bureau
November 05, 2009 11:53 IST
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Among the 23 American CIA officers convicted by an Italian court on Wednesday for their role in the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in 2003, is the Mumbai-born Sabrina de Sousa.

Abu Omar was kidnapped from Milan, Italy, as part of the CIA's 'rendition' programme, and was held in Egypt for four years where he says he was repeatedly tortured by interrogators. He was never charged with a crime, and was ultimately set free.

According to Italian prosecutors, CIA officer de Sousa and others helped in organising the abduction for which she used her diplomatic cover at the American consulate in Milan.

de Sousa, who quit her job with the US government to bring a suit against it to clear her name in the affair, told that the United States broke the law in the kidnapping. 'Whoever authorised and approved it, we are paying the price for it,' she told the web site, and added that the US has 'abandoned and betrayed' her and others.

de Sousa claims she was on a ski trip on the day Omar was kidnapped, and said 'everything she did was approved in Washington'. While she doesn't confirm her CIA antecedents, she said the US refused to invoke diplomatic immunity in her case.

Jeffrey Castelli, then CIA station chief in Rome, considered the architect of the rendition, and two others were acquitted by the court since they had diplomatic immunity thanks to working out of the US embassy in Rome.

Milan's CIA station chief, Robert Seldon Lady, however was not so lucky. He was sentenced, in absentia, to eight years in prison, while de Sousa and 22 others received five-year sentences, again in absentia.

Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro, who spearheaded the investigations for five years, said, 'It's clear Abu Omar's kidnapping was a great mistake. It did serious damage in fighting terrorists because we don't need torture, we don't need renditions, we don't need secret prisons.'

The CIA has declined comment on the matter, as it has done consistently since the matter first came to light, while the US State Department spokesperson said the Obama administration was 'disappointed by the verdict'.

According to US officials, the kidnapping came to light because of 'sloppy tradecraft'; in other words, the CIA team used cellphones extensively during the kidnapping, which in fact formed the bulk of the evidence against them in court.

Former CIA officer Bob Baer told that the team was 'using email, calling home, and the Italians were able to connect their credit cards with true names and true addresses'. Baer, who admits to having done renditions under the Reagan administration, also told the web site while they did it in international waters, 'the Bush administration threw all caution to the wind'.

US Representative Pete Hoekstra, member of the House Intelligence Committee, told that the trial in Italy came as a disaster for officers like de Sousa. 'They have been hung out to dry, and taking the fall potentially for a decision made by their superiors in our agencies.'

de Sousa herself merely said the fallout from the verdict on US-Italian ties 'was getting more embarrassing by the day'.

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The Rediff News Bureau in Mumbai