PANAMA CITY (AP) — A former CIA base chief convicted in the 2003 abduction of a terror suspect from an Italian street has been detained in Panama after Italy requested his arrest in one of the most notorious episodes of the U.S. program known as extraordinary rendition, Italian and Panamanian officials said Thursday.
Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan, entered Panama, crossed the border into Costa Rica and was sent back to Panama where he was detained, according to an Italian official familiar with Italy's investigation of the rendition of Cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the case.
A Panamanian National Police official said Lady, 59, had been detained Wednesday on the Costa Rica-Panama border. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity due to lack of authorization to discuss the matter.
The government of Panama, which maintains one of the region's closest relationships with the U.S., was officially silent on the case. Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told The Associated Press that he was unaware of Lady's detention and the press office of the National Police — which works with Interpol, the international police agency — said it had no information. The CIA also declined to comment.
Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was hustled into a car in February 2003 on a street in Milan, where he preached, and transferred to U.S. military bases in Italy and Germany before being flown to Egypt. He alleged he was tortured in Egypt before being released.
Italy conducted an aggressive investigation and charged 26 CIA and other U.S. government employees despite objections from Washington. All left Italy before charges were filed in the first trial in the world involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, under which terror suspects were abducted and transferred to third countries where many were subjected to torture.
All the U.S. suspects were eventually convicted but only Lady received a sentence — nine years in prison — that merited an extradition request under Italian legal guidelines. Two former Italian spy chiefs were also convicted this year for their role in the cleric's kidnapping.
The case caused tensions between Rome and Washington, two traditionally stalwart allies. In April, Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, pardoned a U.S. Air Force colonel convicted in the rendition case, a move Napolitano hoped would keep American-Italian relations strong, especially on security matters.
Napolitano said he granted the pardon in hopes of resolving an affair that the United States considered unprecedented because a U.S. military officer for NATO had been convicted for deeds committed on Italian territory.
The colonel, Joseph Romano, was security chief of the Aviano air base in northern Italy, where Nasr was taken on his way to Egypt.
In issuing the pardon, Napolitano's office said the president had taken into consideration the fact that Obama, immediately after his election, had put an end to George W. Bush administration anti-terror practices that both Italy and the European Union considered to be "not compatible with fundamental principles of rule of law."
Lady, who was born in Honduras, left Italy early into the Italian investigation of the abduction. He also retired from the CIA. Interpol had issued a request for Lady's arrest, reflecting Italy's determination to get him back.
"U.S. officials who have thus far evaded any accountability for their role in a global torture program should take today's development as a warning sign," the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has fought U.S. counter-terror programs such as extraordinary renditions and detention at Guantanamo Bay, said in an emailed statement.
Italy and Panama have no extradition treaty, Italian diplomats said, but Panama would be free to send Lady to Italy if it wanted.
Italy only allows extradition to be requested for people who have been sentenced to more than four years in prison.
A 2006 amnesty in Italy shaves three years off all sentences meted out by Italian courts, meaning if Lady is brought back to Italy, he would face six years in prison.
D'Emilio reported from Rome. Adam Goldman in Washington and Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.