To Pay Abu Omar, CIA's Man in Milan Loses Villa

When an Italian judge earlier this week sentenced 23 Americans in absentia for the CIA-orchestrated abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr--a symbolic condemnation of the Bush administration's extraordinary-rendition program--the CIA's top officer in Milan at the time, Robert Seldon Lady, got the harshest sentence (eight years). Nobody expects Lady to serve time. He has long since left Italy, and the government of Silvio Berlusconi--whose military-intelligence chief cooperated with the abduction--is unlikely to seek extradition.

But there may be some rough justice in the case after all: the country villa that Lady once purchased as a retirement home is now slated to be sold to pay the $2.2 million in court-ordered damages due the very man Lady was convicted of kidnapping. A magistrate seized the villa, in the northwest part of the country, more than two years ago (Italian law allows for the property of criminal suspects to be confiscated to pay court costs). "It's a beautiful house," Armando Spataro, the prosecutor who oversaw the case, told NEWSWEEK in a phone interview. Once the lawyer for Nasr--a radical Muslim cleric also known as Abu Omar--petitions the court, "the money will go to Abu Omar," Spataro says. Lady could not be reached for comment, and a CIA spokesman said earlier this week that the agency would have no comment on any aspect of the case.

The sale of Lady's house may be the ultimate twist in a case that has proved a long-running embarrassment for the CIA. In early 2003 the agency's officers were convinced that Abu Omar was a serious "terrorist facilitator" after receiving "firsthand reporting" that he was preaching violence against American interests in Italy from his mosque in Milan, says a former senior agency official involved in the planning of the operation who asked not to be identified because of legal sensitivities. (Abu Omar has asserted his innocence.) But instead of cooperating with a criminal investigation of Abu Omar and his associates that Spataro was conducting, the CIA snatched Abu Omar off the street in Milan, hustled him into a van, and flew him to Egypt.

After Abu Omar was released from prison--he complained that he had been hung upside down and had electric prods applied to his genitals--Spataro launched a criminal probe into the circumstances of his abduction. The irony, says Spataro, is that if the U.S. government had cooperated with his initial probe, he probably would have been able to develop enough evidence to put Abu Omar away. "The kidnapping of Abu Omar was not only a serious crime against human rights, it was a [defeat] in the fight against terrorism," he says. "If he was not kidnapped, he would still be in jail today."