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Portugal Wants to Extradite a Former CIA Officer in an Infamous Kidnapping Case

Sabrina De Sousa, a former CIA officer convicted in Italy for the 2003 unlawful rendition of a radical Muslim cleric, faces a possible 5-year prison sentence.

by Jason Leopold
Jan 15 2016, 12:45am

Photo by Claire Ward/VICE News

An appeals court in Lisbon, Portugal issued a decision Wednesday to extradite to Italy a former CIA counterterrorism officer who was one of nearly two-dozen agency operatives prosecuted and convicted on kidnapping charges in absentia in Milan in connection with the notorious rendition of a radical Egyptian cleric in 2003.

Sabrina De Sousa, 60, a dual US/Portuguese citizen, was en route to see her mother in India last October when she was detained at Lisbon Portela Airport on an outstanding European arrest warrant issued by Italian authorities. She was forced to surrender her Portuguese and US passports while a judge considered whether she should be extradited.

Days before, VICE News had been with De Sousa filming a documentary about her decade-long effort to clear her name over her role in the rendition of Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, a Muslim cleric whose fiery anti-American speeches in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 attracted the attention of the CIA.

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

De Sousa and her attorney in Portugal, Manuel Magalhães e Silva, told VICE News that the appeals court had not formally notified them about its decision to extradite her to Italy to serve out her prison sentence. But in a statement to VICE News, her attorney vowed to appeal, and De Sousa said she would press for a new trial.

"When I receive formal notification, I will appeal to the Supreme Court and in case this decision [is] confirmed by the Supreme Court, I will appeal to the Constitutional Court," Magalhães e Silva said.

A legal source at the court, Tribunal da Relação de Lisboa, told VICE News that De Sousa's attorney would receive formal notification of the court's decision on Friday and that it would be made public at that time. The source noted that because De Sousa can appeal the ruling, Portugal would not move to deport De Sousa to Italy until the court reaches a decision on her appeal. Moreover, the source said that because De Sousa holds Portuguese citizenship, she can go to trial in Portugal instead of Italy and her serve her sentence in Portugal.

Armando Spataro, the Italian prosecutor in Milan who brought the case against the CIA officers and won the convictions, was unavailable for comment. In an interview with VICE News last year, Spataro said De Sousa, who he claimed was the "mastermind" of the Abu Omar operation, would not be entitled to a new trial unless she produces evidence to show — unequivocally — that she is innocent and was wrongfully convicted.

He said if she wants to clear her name, "she should come here and tell us everything." 

The CIA declined to comment about the development in Portugal. Neither the agency nor the White House, under George W. Bush or Barack Obama, has ever publicly acknowledged that the rendition of Abu Omar took place.

Watch De Sousa in the VICE News documentary 'The Italian Job.'

The new wrinkle with De Sousa has the potential to cause a diplomatic crisis between the US, Italy, and Portugal, and threatens to lead to the disclosure of new information, much of which remains classified, about the top-secret Abu Omar operation that the US and Italian governments have fought to keep under wraps for more than a decade. The criminal case against the intelligence officers, which was the source of major embarrassment for the US and Italy and strained diplomatic relations between the two countries, was the first and only prosecution and conviction involving Americans connected to the CIA's highly controversial rendition, detention, and interrogation program. 

De Sousa, who resigned from the CIA in 2009, traveled to Portugal last spring via Morocco. 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" and to obtain assistance from human rights lawyers and a member of European Parliament to clear her name.

"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 told VICE News last October after she was detained.

In a landmark 2009 ruling, 23 Americans, 21 of whom were employed or under contract to the CIA, were convicted in absentia in Italy on kidnapping and other charges in connection with Abu Omar's February 2003 abduction. De Sousa was sentenced in absentia to a seven-year prison term in Italy. But one of the CIA officers who was convicted, Betnie Medero, was granted a full pardon by Italian President Sergio Mattarella last month. The former CIA station chief in Milan, Robert Lady, received a partial pardon, from nine years to seven years. (Lady 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.)

In a statement, Mattarella said he decided to issue the pardons because Obama ended the so-called extraordinary rendition program, in which suspected terrorists were secretly captured in one country and sent to another where they were interrogated by a foreign intelligence service — and sometimes tortured.

Next month, according to a report in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Mattarella is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House. De Sousa's case — and a possible pardon for her at the request of the administration — as well as Abu Omar's rendition may be a topic of discussion, La Stampa reported.

"Will President Obama do the right thing now and protect ALL diplomats and military from prosecution by a foreign court for programs (renditions) that are always without exception authorized by the White House and National Security Council?" De Sousa asked.

In response to a query from VICE News, Mark Stroh, a White House National Security Council spokesman, said he did not have a comment on the La Stampa report nor on Mattarella's reported visit, which he would not confirm.

One senior official in Mattarella's office told VICE News Thursday that there have been several discussions about a full pardon of De Sousa between US and Italian officials since she was first detained last October. The official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said Mattarella will likely decide on whether to issue her one, or, like Lady, reduce her sentence, sometime next month. 

Chris Jenks, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic and an assistant law professor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law, who has written about the rendition and the in absentia trial against the American intelligence officers, told VICE News that the case has been an embarrassment for Italy and the US.

"Both countries would just as soon forget about this incident, rehashing it is not productive for either the relationship or even the US or Italy individually," Jenks said. "For the Italian government, it would be challenging to explain why De Sousa is either serving her sentence or being retried when Italy has pardoned other CIA personnel involved. And of course the CIA was working with the Italian intelligence service, so Rome wouldn't be excited about dredging that up."

After Abu Omar disappeared, an investigation spearheaded by Spataro revealed that the cleric 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.

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 and has evidence to prove it. 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.

Spataro, the Italian prosecutor, explained to VICE News last year that even if De Sousa did not take part in the actual abduction on the day the operation was executed, she was still an accessory to the crime.

"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," Spataro told VICE News.

But De Sousa said she is determined to prove her innocence.

Over the past year, she has aggressively used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and sued the CIA and the State Department in an effort to try to pry loose government documents that would reveal internal discussions about the Abu Omar rendition and prove that she was not involved in his kidnapping. She has recently obtained declassified letters in response to her FOIAs from the departments of Justice and State that reveal the CIA had told her years ago that she would never be prosecuted — let alone convicted — in Italy, assertions that turned out to be false.

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 later this year. 

VICE Portugal Editor-in-Chief Sergio Felizardo contributed to this report.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

Tagged:
Europe
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Cia
Sabrina De Sousa
Armando Spataro
torture
Abu Omar
Milan
rendition
kidnapping
Central Intelligence Agency
European Court of Human Rights
osama mustapha hassan nasr