Italian PM witness in CIA rendition trial

silvio-berlusconi.jpgA Milan judge ruled Wednesday that Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor Romano Prodi, can be called as witnesses in a trial on the alleged abduction of a terrorism suspect by agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Berlusconi who returned to office as premier last week was in power in 2003 when an Egyptian imam, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr – better known in Italy as Abu Omar – was allegedly snatched from a Milan street.

A total of 33 defendants – including 26 CIA agents as well as several top Italian intelligence officials – are accused of Omar’s kidnapping, with the complicity of Italy’s military intelligence agency SISMI.

The trial began in June 2007, but was suspended that same month to allow Italy’s constitutional court to rule on allegations by Prodi’s centre-left government that prosecutors had violated state secrets in gathering evidence.

In March presiding judge, Oscar Magi, ruled the trial should resume so as to avoid its expiry due to statute of limitations while the constitutional court considered the case.

The trial is seen as a landmark since it represents the first involving the CIA and Washington’s controversial ‘extraordinary rendition’ policy.

All the American suspects are abroad, and have declined to appear in court in Italy.

Berlusconi has denied knowledge of any kidnap operation and has defended SISMI against wrongdoing. He has also criticized the trial on the grounds it could hurt Italy’s ability to cooperate with Western intelligence agencies in combating terrorism.

Omar, was on his way to Milan’s main mosque when he disappeared on February 17, 2003.

At the time he was being investigated by Italian prosecutors on terrorism charges.

According to prosecutors, after he was abducted in Milan, Omar was flown to Germany and eventually ‘rendered’ by the United States to his native Egypt, where he claims to have been tortured while in prison in a cell near Cairo.