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Milan CIA prosecutor aims to end probe in March

By Staff
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BRUSSELS, Feb 24 (Reuters) An Italian prosecutor plans to conclude next month his inquiry into 22 CIA agents suspected of abducting an Egyptian imam and he said the agents could be tried in absentia if U.S. authorities failed to cooperate.

Armando Spataro has said a CIA team seized Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, on a Milan street in 2003 and flew him for interrogation to Egypt where, Spataro said, evidence showed he was tortured.

The prosecutor told EU lawmakers he was awaiting a U.S.

reply to a request for judicial assistance made a month ago but he planned to conclude his enquiry by the end of March in any case.

Failure by the US to cooperate would not stop him from proceeding, he told a European Parliament committee formed to look into allegations that the US Central Intelligence Agency abducted prisoners in Europe and held them in secret prisons.

''A trial can be held even in absentia'' of the accused, Spataro said, adding that he wanted ''formal legal cooperation'' and not only informal talks with FBI agents.

The United States has denied any wrongdoing. It has neither denied nor confirmed the existence of secret detention centres.

Spataro also said the US abduction ruined his own investigation into Abu Omar and other terrorism suspects.

''Had he not been abducted ... other accomplices would have been identified,'' he said, saying the incident ''puts into question the credibility of western democracy.'' The Italian prosecutor criticised Italy's Justice Ministry too for not forwarding his extradition request for the 22 CIA agents to Washington.

Pressed by the EU lawmakers to say whether the Italian intelligence services had been complicit in the abduction, Spataro said he did not have ''any information that would allow us to assert there was complicity.'' However, Italian law did not allow him to question secret services agents, he said.

Spataro's criticisms were backed by the investigator for the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog looking into the allegations of CIA rendition flights all over Europe.

''The Abu Omar case is exemplary because it shows a strategy ... a methodology and a logistic which we are now discovering in other cases, '' Dick Marty told the same EU lawmakers.

He cited the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who has said he was abducted by the CIA in 2003 and imprisoned for five months in Afghanistan, where he claimed he was abused by his jailers.

Marty also said it was ''difficult for him to believe the (European) intelligence services knew nothing'' and he asked to what extent intelligence services kept governments informed.

The EU lawmakers committee was created last month to probe the CIA allegations but has no legal or judicial power.

Reuters PDS VP0435

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