Europe

'Murky motives' in Portuguese battle over CIA agent

Sabrina de Sousa in the US (10 July 2012) Image copyright AP
Image caption Unlike more senior CIA operatives, Sabrina de Sousa was not given diplomatic immunity by Washington

An extradition battle concerning a low-level former CIA counter-terrorism officer is whipping up a diplomatic storm pulling in the US's "extraordinary rendition" policy, European states' complicity and even a Russian spy's quest for Nato secrets.

Sabrina de Sousa was arrested in Portugal nine months ago over her role in the rendition of an al-Qaeda suspect, for which she has been sentenced to jail in Italy.

In 2003, a radical Egyptian cleric named Abu Omar was kidnapped on the streets of Milan in broad daylight by CIA officers, assisted by Italian intelligence. He was then flown to Egypt, where he says he was tortured for several years.

In 2009, Ms De Sousa was one of 23 American officials convicted in absentia by an Italian court for their role in the rendition, the US-Portuguese citizen being sentenced to four years.


What is 'extraordinary rendition'?

noun, the seizure and transportation by authorities of a criminal suspect from one country to another without the formal process of extradition; an instance of this.

Sometimes used specifically with reference to moving a terrorist suspect for interrogation in a country considered to have less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners

Source: Oxford English Dictionary


None of those represented by empty chairs in the Italian court has been imprisoned, and some higher-ranking officials have received pardons from Italy's president.

Lowly operatives like Ms De Sousa, who says that her role in the Abu Omar sting was merely to act as a translator between US and Italian agents as they prepared the operation, were not given diplomatic immunity by Washington.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Italy found 23 CIA operatives guilty at the end of a lengthy trial in Milan

Everyone seemed to have forgotten about the case, until Ms De Sousa travelled to Portugal to visit relatives last October, triggering an outstanding European Arrest Warrant (EAW) issued by Italy.

Last month Ms De Sousa lost her final appeal against extradition. Although not in custody, she has to report to authorities every week.

Ms De Sousa's legal team still want to challenge the court ruling as they say they have evidence that Italy will not honour the guarantees included in its extradition request, granting 60-year-old Ms De Sousa the right to appeal or request a retrial before being sent to jail to start serving her sentence.

On Friday her Italian lawyer launched a last-ditch appeal against the validity of the extradition, citing the unlawful imposition of state secret restrictions on evidence in the trial phase and the remarkable fact that Abu Omar had spoken out in support of the former agent, saying she had been made "a scapegoat" for a rendition programme that she had since criticised.


Abu Omar and CIA rendition

Image copyright AP
Image caption Abu Omar says he believes Sabrina de Sousa has been made a scapegoat
  • Abu Omar abducted by CIA in Milan on 17 February 2003 and flown to Egypt
  • Held for four years until release without charge; he said he was tortured during captivity
  • From 2007-2009, 26 Americans and seven Italians on trial accused of involvement in kidnapping: first such process centred on the CIA's covert rendition programme
  • 23 Americans convicted in absentia
  • CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady given eight years, later pardoned by Italian president
  • Five Italians were found guilty, including ex-spy chief Nicolo Pollari, but the convictions were overturned in 2014
  • European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy in February 2016 for its role in cleric's illegal detention, ordering €70,000 (£59,000; $79,000) in compensation to Mr Omar and €15,000 to his wife

What happened to Abu Omar?

Italy ex-spy chief jailed for 10 years for rendition case


The Egyptian cleric, whose abduction Ms De Sousa has described a "mess-up", has even written to Italian President Sergio Mattarella asking him to pardon the former agent.

Ms De Sousa's legal representative in Portugal, Manuel Magalhaes e Silva, has asked a Lisbon court to reveal the contents of a 28 June letter sent by the Italian justice ministry.

Mr Magalhaes's view is that Italian authorities may prefer not to have a retrial in order to avoid raking over publicly the level of co-operation that existed between the Italian and US governments at the time.

"She could not be condemned without things being clarified. The Abu Omar affair is a murky one between Italy and the CIA," the lawyer says.

Russian connection

Meanwhile, the Portuguese media has reported that a deal may have been struck between Italy and Portugal in which the terms of Ms De Sousa's extradition could depend on the delivery in the opposite direction of an alleged Russian spy, held in Rome in May after being caught allegedly buying Nato secrets from a Portuguese intelligence officer.

The Russian is said to be resisting extradition to Portugal.

But Mr Magalhaes's opinion is that "Italy does not want the extradition to go ahead. They are trying to provoke the Portuguese courts to stop the extradition."

Ms De Sousa has written to President Barack Obama, asking for assistance in preventing her becoming the first CIA officer to be imprisoned abroad. In 2012 she also contacted Hillary Clinton in her role as US secretary of state but says she received no reply.

Speaking to BBC News from Lisbon via email, Ms De Sousa is grimly pessimistic about her plight, should she finally be extradited to Italy: "They plan on my going straight to prison. Portugal will not mount a challenge against it."

She told a Vice News interviewer last November that she was prepared to do jail time, but added that "anyone who sends me to prison is being complicit in this cover-up".

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