By Naomi O'Leary
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's highest court on Wednesday upheld guilty verdicts on 23 Americans for the kidnapping of an Egyptian Muslim cleric, in the first criminal convictions for CIA "rendition" flights during the U.S. 'war on terror'.
The Americans - 22 CIA agents and one Air Force pilot - who are believed to be in the United States and were tried in their absence - are unlikely to serve their sentences. But they will be unable to travel to Europe without risking arrest.
Italy has never requested their extradition.
All of the Americans were sentenced to seven years' jail by a lower court except former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, who was handed a nine-year sentence. The decision was given to journalists by a court official.
Italy's highest appeals court, or Court of Cassation, also said five senior Italian secret service agents could be tried for the abduction, overturning a previous ruling barring a trial on the grounds it would reveal state secrets.
The five are the former head of Italy's Sismi military intelligence agency Nicolo Pollari, who resigned over the affair, his deputy and three others.
Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian imam known as Abu Omar, was snatched from a Milan street in 2003 and flown to Egypt for interrogation, where he says he was tortured for seven months. He was resident in Italy at the time of the abduction.
The Italian trial was the first of its kind against the "rendition" flights practiced by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush, which have been condemned by human rights groups as a violation of international agreements.
Amnesty International welcomed the decision.
"We have one of the highest courts in a European country upholding convictions of CIA agents for really egregious human rights violations," the human rights group's Expert on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights Julia Hall said.
"Our hope is that the United States would... begin to cooperate with people who are trying to reveal the truth about what happened during the Bush era."
EUROPEAN ROLE IN CIA FLIGHTS
The ruling could strengthen efforts to shed light on the rendition program, in which the CIA is alleged to have abducted terrorism suspects and flown them to countries where they could be tortured, a practice banned under international law.
Last week the European Parliament called on EU countries to fully investigate their role in any such programs, and endorsed a report detailing evidence of secret prisons in Lithuania, Poland and Romania.
A Polish investigation into a suspected secret prison led to the arrest of the country's former chief of intelligence earlier this year.
In 2007 the European Parliament found at least 1,245 CIA flights were made into or over Europe in the four years after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama has tried to distance himself from heavy handed intelligence tactics employed by the previous Bush administration, and ordered the CIA to close its long-term prisons in 2009.
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Barry Moody)