WASHINGTON, July 19, 2013 — It’s a sad situation when a country as well known for judicial and governmental corruption as Italy is has an opportunity to give the United States a lesson in the rule of law.
That’s exactly what is happening with the case of Robert Seldon Lady, the former chief of the CIA’s office in Milan who was arrested in Panama on Wednesday at the request of the Italian government. Lady has a conviction pending against him for kidnapping a Muslim cleric in an instance of “extraordinary rendition” carried out as part of the war on Terror.
In February of 2003, Lady oversaw the abduction of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. He was seized on a Milan street, forced into a car, transferred to the custody of the U.S. military which ultimately flew him to Egypt, where he was tortured and interrogated in the most inhumane conditions.
This “rendition” was a common practice in the early part of the War on Terror. It allowed the CIA to get around American and foreign laws against torture and the requirements of due process of law by kidnapping suspects without a trial and turning them over to cooperative governments where torture of prisoners was common practice.
Ironically, in Nasr’s case the Egyptian government eventually released him for lack of evidence that he was involved in any terrorism, and he and his wife have filed multimillion dollar suits for damages against the U.S. and Italian governments.
The kidnapping was a violation of Italian law. Italy investigated and ultimately charged 26 U.S. government employees in the case. All 26 were convicted in 2009 and the final appeals were exhausted earlier this year. Of those convicted, only Lady is still sentenced to prison. The lesser figures in the case had their seven-year sentences reduced by the appeals court. Lady’s nine-year sentence is sufficiently substantial to require the Italian government to pursue him internationally through extradition, and Interpol has followed the Italian government’s lead by issuing an international arrest warrant for Lady.
Lady left Italy and retired from the CIA during the process of the trial, avoiding arrest upon his conviction in absentia. Italy did not pursue extradition while Lady was in the United States for diplomatic reasons, but has moved forward now that Lady is out of U.S. jurisdiction. Italy has no formal extradition agreement with Panama, but unless the United States Government chooses to apply some pressure, it’s possible that Panama would return Lady to Italy under the authority of the Interpol warrant.
This unique situation places the excesses of the War on Terror in stark contrast with the long history of respect for human rights and civil liberties which is part of the legal tradition of Italy as well as the United States. The rule of law and the idea of due process are cornerstones of western civilization.
To seize someone who is only suspected of a crime or of having information about a crime and kidnap him, take him without trial and subject him to torture in a foreign land is such a gross violation of the legal principles that make civilization function, that it should never have been tolerated. It is a credit to the Italian court system that they had the fortitude to pursue this case and an embarrassment to the United States that we were ever responsible for this sort of criminal behavior, even in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. It made us no better than the terrorists who attacked us.
As for Robert Seldon Lady, he has the excuse that he was just following orders, but as an American government official he should be held to a higher standard.
There ought to be limits to what we tolerate in the name of security and espionage, and extraordinary rendition crosses a clear line of what is unacceptable in any civilized country.
For Lady a few years in an Italian prison is far less horrible than the fate to which he consigned Nasr, and we can only wish that those who gave him his orders could join him there.
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