By DEB RIECHMANN and JUAN ZAMORANO, Associated Press
PANAMA CITY (AP) — A former CIA base chief convicted in the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian terror suspect is being sent to the United States instead of Italy, which wanted him to serve prison time for his role in the notorious anti-terrorism program known as extraordinary rendition, the U.S. State Department said Friday.
Robert Seldon Lady was detained in Panama this week after Italy and Interpol requested his arrest. After barely two days in detention, he was put on a plane to the U.S. by Panama, a close U.S. ally that offered no explanation for its decision.
"It's my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington. She declined to disclose other details about his case.
Italy's deputy foreign minister, Lap Pistelli, said in a statement that Italy "acknowledges" Panama's decision, adding nothing more about the case. Italy and Panama have no extradition treaty, Italian diplomats said, but Panama would have been free to send Lady to Italy if it wanted.
Lady had crossed the border into Costa Rica this week and was sent back to Panama where he was detained, according to an Italian official familiar with Italy's investigation of the rendition of Cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the case.
A Panamanian National Police official said Lady, 59, had been detained Wednesday on the Costa Rica-Panama border. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity due to lack of authorization to discuss the matter.
A senior U.S. administration official said that Lady was detained in Panama on Thursday and that he was "expelled" by Panamanian immigration officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details of the case.
"It's just pretty astonishing that this hopeful moment for some accountability turned so quickly on its head," said Katherine Gallagher, a senior attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has fought against U.S. practices such as extraordinary rendition and detention of terrorism suspected at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
She said U.S. efforts to help Lady escape punishment in Italy opened the Obama administration to charges of hypocrisy when they are considered in light of a U.S. push to bring National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden back to the U.S. to be put on trial. Attempts to get Snowden back have included an international push to persuade countries not to give Snowden asylum, or even let him cross their airspace on his way to a country that could let him avoid the U.S. justice system.
"We see a complete double standard here. The U.S. is saying it's so important for Snowden to face charges in the U.S., where there is a great deal of debate over whether those charges are legitimate, as opposed to Lady, where there is a conviction for torture, a universally recognized crime," Gallagher said.
Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was hustled into a car in February 2003 on a street in Milan, where he preached, and transferred to U.S. military bases in Italy and Germany before being flown to Egypt. He alleged he was tortured in Egypt before being released.
Italy conducted an aggressive investigation and charged 26 CIA and other U.S. government employees despite objections from Washington. All left Italy before charges were filed in the first trial in the world involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, under which terror suspects were abducted and transferred to third countries where many were tortured.
All of the U.S. suspects were eventually convicted but only Lady received a sentence — nine years in prison — that merited an extradition request under Italian legal guidelines.
He disappeared for years, offering sporadic comments to the media, until he reappeared in the public eye this week.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is a right-leaning populist who took office in 2009 and was widely seen as alienating the Obama administration when he first took power with an authoritarian leadership style and attempts to exert control over Panama's legislative and judicial branches.