Trial of CIA Kidnappers May Have Italian Star Power

MILAN, Italy - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor Romano Prodi may testify in the Milan trial of 26 CIA agents accused of kidnapping an Egyptian imam, a judge decided Wednesday.

Judge Oscar Magi accepted defense lawyers' arguments that Prodi and Berlusconi should be called in the trial of the agents being judged in absentia.

Seven Italians, including the former head of military intelligence General Nicolo Pollari, are also on trial in the case.

Secret service heads and ministers of defense under Prodi, who was premier between 2006 and 2008, and in Berlusconi's previous government from 2001-2006 may testify, the judge ruled.

The defendants are on trial in the northern city for the February 2003 kidnapping of Osama Mustafa Hassan, better known as Abu Omar.

The trial is the first in Europe over the CIA's so-called "extraordinary rendition" program under which it has secretly transferred terror suspects to third countries known to practice torture.

Abu Omar was snatched from a Milan street in an operation believed coordinated by the CIA and Italian military intelligence, then transferred to a high-security prison outside Cairo, where he was held for four years.

After his release in February 2007, he told of torture and humiliation during his incarceration.

Pollari, who was forced to resign over the affair, has said he is innocent but unable to defend himself because he cannot discuss state secrets.

His lawyers have called for testimony from Berlusconi and Prodi since the start of the trial in June 2007 in hopes of showing that their client was not aware of the kidnapping.

The judge had held off on reaching a decision on the matter while the Constitutional Court deliberated whether Milan investigators had violated state secrecy laws by wiretapping military intelligence agents.

The trial was suspended in June 2007, shortly after it opened, while awaiting a decision from the Constitutional Court.

Magi decided to resume the trial in March after the government and Milan prosecutors agreed in January to try to settle the issue without recourse to Italy's highest court.

Among the Americans are the former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, the Rome CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli and U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Romano, who was stationed at the Aviano air base in northeastern Italy at the time.

The Italian government has refused to seek the extradition of the 26 Americans requested by the Milan prosecutors.

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