May 16, 2009

Lawsuit seeks diplomatic immunity in Italian case

By NEDRA PICKLER, Associated Press Writer Nedra Pickler, Associated Press Writer –
WASHINGTON – A former U.S. official facing kidnapping charges in Italy for the seizure of a suspected terrorist is suing the State Department to protect herself from prosecution.
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Washington, Sabrina De Sousa wants diplomatic immunity and government-funded legal counsel in Italy. She claims she was a foreign service officer working in Milan and was not involved in the 2003 seizure of Muslim cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar.
But Italian prosecutors say De Sousa, a 53-year-old India native, was a CIA officer working under diplomatic cover and was one of four main U.S. officials responsible for coordinating Nasr's capture from a Milan street in broad daylight on Feb. 17, 2003.
Prosecutors say he was then transported in a van to the Aviano Air Force Base, flown to the Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany and then to his home country of Egypt, where he was held and allegedly tortured. He has since been released.
De Sousa is one of 26 U.S. government officials and seven Italians charged with involvement in Nasr's alleged kidnapping. In her suit, De Sousa denies that she worked for the CIA and says at the time of the incident she was vacationing at a ski resort nearly 130 miles away in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy.
The case is in limbo, with a judge planning to announce next week whether it can continue. Defense lawyers are arguing that it's impossible for the case to proceed because Italy's high court has thrown out key evidence on the grounds that it's considered classified.
Italian prosecutors accuse De Sousa of planning the cleric's kidnapping and coordinating between all the parties involved, as well as of trying to mislead Italian authorities after the fact by telling them Nasr had relocated to the Balkans, according to a summary of the charges and evidence.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro declined to comment on De Sousa's claims in her lawsuit against the State Department. But a summary of the evidence against De Sousa that Spataro provided says De Sousa was known to the Italian state police anti-terrorism squad in Milan as a CIA agent attached to the local U.S. consulate.
A 2005 search of the hard drive in the home of former Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady also yielded reference to a "Sabrina" in an e-mail from a clerk at the consulate. In the e-mail, "Sabrina" is referred to as the person in charge of keeping track of the Italian investigation.
The CIA has refused to comment on the trial, and the Americans are being tried in absentia. Their lawyers were appointed by the Italian government and acted without any contact with their clients. De Sousa says in her suit that she was instructed by the State Department not to communicate with them.
De Sousa says in her lawsuit that she has received no response from letters to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under President George W. Bush, asking them to invoke diplomatic immunity.
She resigned her job in February because of the department's refusal to give her immunity and because she was denied permission to travel to India to visit her family. She said she was told that she risks arrest and extradition to Italy if she leaves the United States.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the suit is under review and the agency had no immediate comment.
The suit says De Sousa has been deprived of any recourse to respond to the allegations that have impugned her reputation, and she asks that the State Department provide her with a "name-clearing hearing" to challenge the accuracy of the charges against her. The suit says she has been "effectively abandoned and left to fend for herself by the very government she had faithfully served for over a decade."
"The U.S. government's refusal to protect its diplomats and military personnel is virtually unprecedented, and sets a terrible example for anyone who wishes to serve the interests of the U.S. overseas," said De Sousa's lawyer, Mark Zaid.

Associated Press reporter Maria Sanminiatelli in New York contributed to this report.

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