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Former CIA Officer Detained in Europe While Trying to Clear Her Name in Rendition Case

Sabrina De Sousa had her passport confiscated while trying to leave Portugal this week, and now waits to hear whether she'll be extradited to Italy to serve a 5-year prison sentence.
Foto di Claire Ward/VICE News

A former CIA counterterrorism officer who has spent nearly a decade trying to clear her name over her alleged role in the infamous rendition of a terrorism suspect was detained in Portugal this week after trying to leave the country.

Sabrina De Sousa, 59, was en route to see her mother in India on Monday when she was stopped by law enforcement authorities at Lisbon Portela Airport on an outstanding European arrest warrant issued in Italy. Days before she was detained, VICE News had been with De Sousa in Lisbon filming a documentary about her ordeal and the rendition case. De Sousa's husband informed VICE News of her arrest, which we independently confirmed through diplomatic and law enforcement sources in Portugal, who declined to discuss the case on the record.


De Sousa told VICE News Thursday that she was detained overnight at the main police headquarters in Lisbon. A hearing was held before a Portuguese prosecutor and a judge at the Tribunal da Relação de Lisboa Tuesday to determine whether she should remain in custody. De Sousa, a dual US and Portuguese citizen, said she was advised by her attorneys not to discuss details of the hearing, but that the judge freed her and seized her US and Portuguese passports while a decision is made about whether she should be extradited to Italy, which is expected in about 10 days.

De Sousa traveled to Portugal seven months ago via Morocco without incident. Her arrival in the country was part of a new effort by the former intelligence officer to hold the CIA and Italy accountable for what she says was an "illegal rendition."

On October 1, "A couple of days before I tried to travel to see my mother, there was a notification [to Portuguese authorities] that my American passport with the original arrest warrant was associated with my Portuguese passport," De Sousa said.

"I knew I was taking a risk, but at some point I want to live [in Portugal] as a free citizen, and this needs to be resolved," De Sousa said, referring to the rendition and her attempt to travel. "When I arrived in Portugal, my Italian attorney met with an official in the Office of the President of Italy, so they've known I've been here. They met on the issue of clemency."


In a landmark 2009 ruling, De Sousa and nearly two-dozen other CIA officers were convicted in absentia in Italy on kidnapping and other charges in connection with the February 2003 abduction of Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, a radical cleric whose fiery anti-American speeches in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 attracted the attention of the CIA.

Watch a preview of VICE News' upcoming interview with De Sousa about Abu Omar's rendition and her quest to clear her name.

After Abu Omar disappeared, an investigation spearheaded by a Milan prosecutor revealed that he was taken off a Milan street in broad daylight by CIA and Italian intelligence officers and rendered to Egypt, where the cleric says he was brutally tortured during interrogations about his alleged plans for recruiting jihadists to fight against Americans.

It was the first prosecution and conviction involving American intelligence officers connected to the CIA's highly controversial rendition, detention, and interrogation program. De Sousa was sentenced in absentia to a seven-year prison term in Italy.

But De Sousa, who had been operating under diplomatic cover at the US Consulate in Milan at the time the rendition was carried out — she was officially listed as a State Department employee — has for years maintained her innocence. On the day the operation took place, she said she was on a ski trip with her son. She acknowledged that she served as a translator for the CIA snatch team and Italian intelligence that planned the abduction, but she said she was "cut out" of the operation long before it took place.


Related: A Radical Imam, His Alleged CIA Kidnapper, and Their 10-Year Hunt for Justice

Armando Spataro, the Italian prosecutor who prosecuted De Sousa and other CIA officers, told VICE News in an interview at his office in Milan last month that De Sousa has one way to "clear her reputation: She should come and tell us everything."

"I don't want to comment on her statements," he said. "I have to tell you that not only in the Abu Omar abduction but with any felony, like grand theft auto, it is not only responsible who executed but also who helped the preparation."

In Portugal, De Sousa has enlisted the help of Ana Gomes, a member of the European Parliament who has previously investigated CIA rendition flights — including several that reportedly touched down on Portuguese soil — and Portugal's complicity in the program.

De Sousa says she hopes that a prosecutor in Germany will take a look at her case, which was upheld by Italy on appeal, as well as Abu Omar's "unlawful" kidnapping. On July 28, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights sent a complaint to a federal prosecutor in Germany calling for an investigation into Abu Omar's rendition and other another CIA kidnapping after speaking to De Sousa. The complaint targets former Bush administration officials over their roles in the torture of Abu Omar and another rendition victim. (Abu Omar was flown to Rammstein Air Base in Germany prior to his rendition to Egypt.)

Related: 'Blind Spots and Inefficiencies': The CIA Before and After 9/11

De Sousa is the second CIA officer linked to the Abu Omar rendition to be detained. Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA's station chief in Milan, was arrested in 2013 while traveling in Panama. He was quickly released, and he returned to the US before any attempt could be made by Italy to extradite him. It remains unclear what steps the US took to secure his return.

Last June, the European Court of Human Rights held a hearing in Strasbourg, France over claims that, among other charges, Abu Omar has not been compensated for his rendition and alleged torture in Egypt. The court is expected to issue a decision in December.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold