MILAN – Lawyers for two high-ranking former CIA operatives in Italy charged in the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric argued on Wednesday that their clients should be granted diplomatic immunity.
They also said evidence against the two, who were allegedly acting as part of the agency's extraordinary renditions program, was insufficient for a conviction.
Jeffrey Castelli, identified as the former head of the CIA in Rome, is the highest-level American defendant among the 26 charged in what prosecutors argue was a CIA-led extraordinary rendition of a terror suspect.
Prosecutors are seeking 13 years in jail for Castelli, citing his alleged role in orchestrating the abduction along with the former head of the Italian military intelligence, and 12 years for Robert Seldon Lady, the Milan station chief at the time.
It is the first trial anywhere in the world scrutinizing extraordinary renditions, which human rights advocates say were the CIA's way of outsourcing the torture of suspected terrorists to countries where it was practiced.
The CIA has declined to comment on the case, and Italy's government has denied involvement. Lawyers have entered innocent pleas for the Americans, who are considered fugitives and risk arrest in Italy. Seven Italians also are charged.
Matilde Sansalone argued that Castelli enjoys immunity because he was an accredited diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Rome at the time of the disappearance on Feb. 17, 2003 of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, an Egyptian cleric who at the time was under investigation as a terror suspect by Italian authorities.
Another lawyer, Arianna Barbazza, argued that Lady too should be granted immunity, and said that evidence linking him to the cleric's disappearance is insufficient.
Sansalone and Barbazza are both court-appointed lawyers, and have had no contact with their clients.
The judge in the preliminary hearing phase already has ruled out immunity for the U.S. defendants because of the severity of the charges.
Sansalone also said during her closing arguments that much of the testimony presented against Castelli was no longer admissible, due to a ruling by Italy's Constitutional Court striking any evidence referring to the workings of the Italian or American secret services. This includes testimony indicating a meeting between Castelli and the head of Italian military intelligence, Nicolo Pollari.
Even if it were admitted, Sansalone argued that the evidence in no way proves her client's involvement. She also argued there was no evidence indicating he orchestrated the kidnapping, saying that responsibility was assigned only because of his high-level position at the embassy.
Barbazza, who represents half of the American defendants, said her remaining 12 clients have been identified on the basis of such evidence as poor quality passport photographs or cell phone records. She argued the evidence does not meet standards for positively identifying defendants charged with a crime as serious as kidnapping.
"They need to be acquitted because we don't have certain and physical identification," she told the court.
Prosecutors say Nasr was taken in broad daylight from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, transferred in a van to the Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, then flown to the Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany before being flown onward to Egypt — where he was allegedly tortured.
Barbazza and another court-appointed lawyer, Alessia Sorgato, also said that if the judge determined there was indeed a CIA order for Nasr's kidnapping, the defendants would be innocent because they were subordinates following orders.
"They were the last link of a long chain," Barbazza said.
Defense arguments continue next week. A verdict is expected in November.