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Bush's Italian Trip Comes as 'Rendition' Trial Opens

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Bush is in Italy today, the latest stop on his European tour. At the same time, a trial began in Milan, a trial that's embarrassing for both Italy and the U.S. It involves the controversial CIA practice known as extraordinary rendition. Twenty-six Americans - all but one believed to be CIA - are being tried in absentia alongside seven Italian intelligence officers, including the former head of Italy's intelligence agency.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this from Milan.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The charge is the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar, who the prosecution says was flown to Egypt where he was tortured. He was under investigation for terrorism.

(Soundbite of Abu Omar speaking foreign language)

POGGIOLI: The trial began with the reading of the names of the defendants.

Unidentified Man #1: Castelli, Jeffrey (Italian spoken)…

POGGIOLI: Jeff Castelli and another defendant, Robert Seldon Lady, were said to be the CIA station chiefs in Rome and Milan at the time of the abduction. None of the American defendants were present in court and a U.S. official had said they'll never be handed over for prosecution.

Ms. ALESSIA SORGATO (Lawyer): (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: Alessia Sorgato, the court-appointed lawyer for three of the American defendants, filed a motion saying her clients are not fugitives. She said they left Italy long ago and know nothing about the indictments. Not so, countered prosecutor Ferdinando Pomarici.

Mr. FERDINANDO POMARICI (Italian Prosecutor): (Through translator) An email message found in the computer of Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady urged him and his colleagues to leave Italy at the earliest to avoid being arrested.

POGGIOLI: The prosecution says the CIA suspects used unusually sloppy tradecraft, leaving a paper trail of cell phone calls, car rental receipts and very expensive hotel bills. Legal experts suggest it means the operatives believe they had the green light from Italian authorities, a suggestion denied by the government at the time.

The current Italian government doesn't want this trial and has asked the constitutional court to throw it out on the grounds of protecting state secrecy. The trial was adjourned to June 18th so the judge Oscar Magi can decide whether to suspend proceedings until the constitutional court rules in the fall.

Lawyers for the Italian defendants also asked that the trial be held behind closed doors to insure their clients' anonymity. The judge turned down the motion as requested by prosecutor Armando Spataro, who stressed the need for transparency.

Mr. ARMANDO SPATARO (Prosecutor): (Through translator) It is of great social importance for the public to know these facts, which also involve the defense of human rights.

POGGIOLI: Montasser el-Zayat, an Egyptian lawyer representing Abu Omar, said his client, who is now under house arrest in Egypt, wants to be compensated morally and financially for the abduction and torture he was subjected to.

Mr. MONTASSER EL-ZAYAT (Lawyer): (Through translator) Abu Omar has lose 60 percent of his hearing and he needs a hearing aid. His spinal cord is injured and he suffers from depression.

POGGIOLI: Just as the trial got underway in Paris, the European human rights monitoring agency, the Council of Europe, issued a report contending that the CIA ran secret prisons in Poland and Romania despite their governments' denials.

It says terrorist suspects were subjected to sleep deprivation, water boarding or simulated drowning. The report also accuses Italy of obstructing investigations into alleged CIA secret detentions.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Milan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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