Ex-CIA officer tied to abduction of Egyptian cleric allowed to flee Panama for U.S.


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Panama on Friday allowed a retired CIA station chief wanted in Italy for his role in the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian Muslim cleric to leave for the United States, permitting the former U.S. intelligence agent to avoid an Italian jail cell.

Robert Seldon Lady, the former CIA station chief in Milan, had been arrested earlier in the week as he attempted to cross into Costa Rica from Panama.

Panama offered no explanation for its decision to authorize Lady’s release, but Italy’s foreign ministry said it respected Panama’s action in a sign that none of the countries involved cared to reopen one of the most controversial incidents of the Bush administration’s prosecution of its war against terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a daily briefing in Washington.

Lady, 59, was convicted along with 22 others for the abduction of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, an Egyptian cleric who U.S. officials said was recruiting radical Muslims for jihad in the Middle East. Nasr, widely known as Abu Omar, later turned up in an Egyptian prison, where his lawyer said he’d been repeatedly tortured.

Lady’s detention brought to the fore an issue that leaders in both Italy and the United States had sought to keep out of the limelight.

“It’s a sensitive issue, and it is a source of embarrassment to the two countries. We cooperate on all kinds of things,” said Michael Calingaert, a visiting scholar and expert on U.S.-Italian relations at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Late last year, Italy’s top appeals court upheld a nine-year sentence for Lady, although if he were to return to Italy a sentence reduction would mean he would only serve six years.

Italian prosecutors _ who built their case around triangulated cellphone signals, an Italian CIA asset who helped carry out the kidnapping, and other extensive evidence to lay bare the U.S.-led abduction _ said they were not surprised that Lady would escape from Panama to the United States.

The U.S. government seeks to keep active and retired CIA agents out of foreign jails and will “exert pressure in all directions to make sure that does not happen,” Milan prosecutor Ferdinando Pomarici said Friday, according to the Italian ANSA news agency.

Lady, who abandoned a retirement home near the Italian Alps and fled Italy before his conviction, has apparently been crossing several international boundaries while on the lam.

He appeared at Paso Canoas, a jungle-strewn crossing at the border between Costa Rica and Panama, at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, said Andrea Quesada Villalobos, spokeswoman for the Costa Rican Migration Department.

“When his information was put into the system, an Interpol alert appeared for us, a red alert, so we immediately contacted the Costa Rican Interpol office,” Quesada said, referring to the international criminal police body designed to track down criminals fleeing from country to country.

“The Interpol agent said that we couldn’t detain him in Costa Rica, so what we did was deny him entry and return him to the Panamanian immigration office,” she said.

Quesada said Lady arrived on foot and alone, and was handed off to Panamanian authorities.

Panama and Italy do not have an extradition treaty.

In contrast, the United States and Panama maintain close security ties developed last century when a U.S. military presence guarded the Panama Canal that divides the country. The U.S. government returned the canal to full Panamanian control in 1999.

In a sign of that cooperation, Panama last weekend impounded a North Korean ship and discovered hidden weapons aboard buried under bags of brown sugar. Cuba later claimed ownership of the weapons, including two MiG-21 fighters, nine disassembled rockets and 15 MiG engines, saying they were old and to be refurbished in North Korea.

Other factors also might have played into the decision. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has had a troubled relationship with Italian prosecutors, who are investigating whether a huge Italian defense firm, Finmeccanica, paid bribes to the Panamanian government for the purchase of helicopters, radar systems and the construction of prisons. Martinelli, who has an Italian passport and was close to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has denied any graft offer. No contract was ever signed.

The extent of the secret U.S. policy of abducting terror suspects and moving them from one country to another, a process known as extraordinary rendition, has never been fully revealed.

In February, the Open Society Justice Initiative, a liberal advocacy group, published a report saying 54 foreign governments had collaborated with the CIA to abduct and move at least 136 known victims, usually to third countries where torture would be freely used during interrogations.

Nasr, who had lived in Yemen prior to moving to Italy, spent four years in an Egyptian prison but was never charged with a crime. His attorney said that he lost partial sight in one eye because of abuse by his Egyptian jailers.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in August 2009 that the U.S. government would not abandon the practice of rendition but would seek assurances from the receiving nations that they would not employ torture.

McClatchy national security correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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