Rendition on Trial

On June 8, the trial of 28 American and Italian intelligence officials allegedly involved in the 2003 "extraordinary rendition" of an Egyptian cleric, Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr (known as Abu Omar), is to get underway in a Milan courtroom. Although the 26 CIA officers indicted will be tried in abstentia, it will be the first trial of suspects indicted for being involved in the United States' controversial extraordinary rendition policy. Laura Rozen interviewed the Milan prosecutor who investigated the Abu Omar rendition, Armando Spataro, by email.


LR: What is your biography? How did you become a prosecutor?

AS: I was born in Taranto, in the South of Italy. I became a prosecutor in September 1976 … I have lead many investigations on left-wing domestic terrorism (Red Brigades etc), in the '70s and '80s, and two colleagues and friends of mine were murdered in Milano by these groups. After the '80s, I led many investigations on mafia activities.

Towards the beginning of your investigation of the Abu Omar kidnapping, the investigation was focused on the evidence that the operation was carried out largely by Americans, presumably without Italian government knowledge or involvement. Only later in the investigation did you discover evidence that there may have been elements of the Italian intelligence service involved in the operation. How did it change the pressures on your investigation, if it all?

As you know, the prosecutor's job is based on the discovery of hard evidence, not on simple assumptions. According to the results of our investigations (mine and of my colleague Ferdinando Pomarici) and as per the final decision of the judge, Caterina Interlandi, who indicted the charged people (American and Italian) for the upcoming trial, we found evidence on the responsibility of members of the CIA and of Italian Intelligence (SISMI). Incidentally we found no evidence on [the involvement of] Italian government members. In any case it's true that when we charged also some Italian members of the Sismi, the Abu Omar case became in Italy front-page news and a political case. But the Italian judges and prosecutors -- who are both absolutely independent -- are used to this type of pressure. So this attention of public opinion and the consequent pressure have been inconsequential to our duty to pursue the inquiry. Indeed, the Italian legal system contemplates the obligation to pursue any crime the prosecutor has knowledge of, without any possibility of discretional choice. Consequently, the new focus on the last part of investigation has not affected our job in any way.

Given that not just in Italy, but in other European countries as well, there has been the gradual discovery that several European governments have quietly cooperated with the Americans to some degree in renditions of terrorism suspects and allowing planes to use European airports and possibly East European sites for secret black site prisons, what does it mean? Is it the case that European governments can cooperate in such programs only to the degree that their publics do not know about them? Or do the publics themselves tolerate covert extra legal measure to target terrorism suspects, as long as they don't have to hear too much about it?

I am trying to understand philosophically if you observe that the situation in Europe is fundamentally different than in America or not, in terms of the public here in America probably knowing a bit about what our government is alleged to have done as far as extraordinary renditions, but somehow it remaining outside of public consciousness to some degree. I also wonder if the Abu Omar trial will change that.

As you know, our investigations focus only on the Abu Omar case … whereas the issues you raised are under scrutiny of the European Parliament and of the Council of Europe, which have recently approved some important resolutions … These resolutions can also lead to political sanctions against the State members which don't comply with them … On the European public's knowledge of these illegal practices, let me say that I think the European citizens did not know of their existence. And I think that just the investigations of prosecutors and judges in Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland etc., as well as the above-mentioned inquiries of the European Parliament are shedding some light on these problems.

I don't know your domestic situation in terms of awareness of the American people about these matters, but surely I know a large part of the American society condemns this way of fighting terrorism. In any case, from a legal perspective, there are serious differences between the European and the common law systems … I think the Abu Omar trial will be important to underline the gravity of these crimes and the devastating consequences for an effective fight against terrorism: Moreover, these crimes increase the possibility of recruiting new terrorists.

You are regarded as being quite independent, in a country whose politics are even more polarized than in America's. How do you view your mission? Did your investigation come under political pressures?

I would like to avoid rhetoric. So I want to underline that I don't think my job is a mission. I chose it also because it allows me to act independently and my only values are written in our Constitution and laws. As for any type of pressure, in general I'm not affected. I resent only when I read allegations that our job is politically motivated or driven by anti-American sentiment. My professional experience and personal history demonstrate just the opposite.

Of the details that have already been made public, what of your investigation's discovery surprised you the most?

I was not surprised by any specific detail, but by the whole affair, absolutely unlawful and for us inconceivable. A grave mistake as well as a serious crime.

Much as in Italy, the United States has been having a discussion about state secrets: crimes that cannot be tried because they would reveal secrets, programs that cannot be overseen by Congress because they are national security secrets, etc. What have you observed about the employment of the "state secret" defense in Italy regarding the Abu Omar case in particular, and the "war on terror" over the past six years, in general?

The State Secret defense in Italy has sadly been used to hinder the investigations on many heinous crimes. Our Parliament is currently debating a new law on employment of the State Secret. But, even if in the future a new law were approved, no State Secret defense could apply to a case such as Abu Omar kidnapping, because it is a serious crime against fundamental human rights and individual freedoms. But I prefer not to add anything else as we have a conflict, on this point, with our government before the Constitutional Court.

What would you like in particular American readers to understand about the Abu Omar investigation? Is this a trial to get justice for Abu Omar, o to get out the truth, or what?

All criminal trials are meant to establish the truth , although this isn't always possible. And also the prosecutors have to wait for the judge's sentences and to respect them. I think that it's the job of reporters and commentators to convey to their readers the significance of such investigations and trials. On my side I want only to stress that we, as judges or prosecutors, are sadly very much acquainted with the tragedies of terrorism and we know how it can be beaten. We also know that kidnappings of the suspects and any other illegal practices are not useful in this effort.

Democracy also means accepting costs and sacrifices. But if we adopt the procedure of violence, of illegality, if we do this, we would be really doing a disservice to combating terrorism and we would create further reasons for terrorists to justify their violent actions.

Related: "Rendition's Revenge: Italy revolts against a CIA snatch from Milan, raising uncomfortable questions for Silvio Berlusconi."