The U.S. government may have closed without any prosecutions its inquiries into and investigations of CIA involvement in torture, homicide and other gross human rights violations, and convinced courts to dismiss civil accountability suits for such abuses – but across the pond, courts are holding U.S. officials criminally responsible for these very same acts. Yesterday, Italy’s highest court affirmed the convictions of 23 Americans involved in the abduction and rendition to torture of a Muslim cleric, Abu Omar, as part of the U.S. government’s notorious “extraordinary rendition” program. This case marks the first time any court anywhere in the world has held CIA officials responsible for torture and other abuses arising out of the program, which was greatly expanded under President George W. Bush and continues to be endorsed, albeit with assurances that international legal obligations will be respected, under the Obama administration.
The abduction giving rise to the convictions occurred on the streets of Milan in 2003. Abu Omar was seized by CIA agents with the help of Italian intelligence officials and flown to Egypt where he was interrogated and tortured by Egyptian officials before his release without charge or trial. The Italian court yesterday also ordered that five of those Italian intelligence officials must stand trial for their role in the kidnapping.
ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar said of the decision:
The Italian ruling highlights the lack of accountability in the U.S. courts for serious crimes committed by government officials in the name of national security, such as kidnapping and torture. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed that Washington tried to derail the Italian investigation instead of supporting the interests of justice. Though legal questions remain, such as the validity of trials in absentia, American officials would be wise to heed the Italian court's message that those who violate the law will be called to answer.
The ruling is likely to bolster efforts to hold European nations accountable for their role in the extraordinary rendition program. Just last week, the European Parliament called on governments to scrutinize member states’ involvement in the program. Polish prosecutors have for a number of years been investigating secret CIA prisons that operated in the country. And this fall, the European Court of Human Rights is expected to hand down a ruling in a case concerning Macedonia’s involvement in the rendition and torture of ACLU client Khaled El-Masri.
Was the trial of CIA officials in Italian court as we would have liked to see? No. Will the Americans, all of whom were tried in absentia, ever serve their sentences? Doubtful. Would justice be better served in American courts? Certainly. But – as the ACLU works to change U.S. government policy on accountability and to ensure that all perpetrators of torture and abuse are brought to justice and that victims are granted compensation – we are heartened by the fact that the Italian court has reminded the world that those who violate the law and human rights will be held to account.