ROME - Italy's president on Friday pardoned a U.S. Air Force colonel convicted in absentia by Italian courts in the CIA-conducted abduction of an Egyptian terror suspect from a Milan street in a move he hoped would keep American-Italian relations strong, especially on security matters.
President Giorgio Napolitano's office said the head of state granted the pardon "in hopes of giving a solution to a situation to an affair considered by the United States to be without precedent because of the aspect of convicting a U.S. military officer of NATO for deeds committed on Italian soil."
Joseph Romano was security chief of northern Italy's Aviano air base where the abducted Egyptian Muslim cleric was taken before being flown out of the country and eventually to Egypt. The trial was the first in the world involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program to abduct terror suspects and transfer them to third countries where torture is permitted. Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was abducted in 2003 while walking down a street in Milan, where he preached. The cleric was hustled by car off to Aviano, then transferred to a U.S. military base in Germany, before being flown to Egypt, where he said he was tortured. He was eventually released.
Romano's defense said he was never formally notified of charges. Twenty-three Americans were convicted, all in absentia, and Italy's highest criminal court last year upheld the convictions.
That top court decision paved the way for extradition requests by Italian authorities, but so far none have come from Premier Mario Monti's government, which is staying on in a caretaker role following elections earlier this year. Napolitano, as president, has the power to grant pardon, and he issued Romano's pardon a month before his seven-year-term expires.
The presidential palace statement said that in deciding to pardon Romano, Napolitano had "above all, taken into account the fact that the president of the United States, Barack Obama, immediately after his election, put an end to an approach of handling the challenges to national security" that were put into place after the Sept. 11 attacks, "a precise and concrete" moment in history. Referring to U.S. war on terror approaches like extraordinary rendition, the statement said such practices were "considered by Italy and the European Union not compatible with fundamental principles of rule of law."
Obama and Napolitano have enjoyed a strong personal relationship. Napolitano also considered a recent change in Italian law on criminal procedures that renounces Italian jurisdiction on crimes committed by NATO soldiers, the statement said.
Asked for reaction, the White House referred the matter to the Pentagon, which said it had no comment.
Although concern for the continuation of the long and traditionally strong Italian-U.S. ties weighed on Napolitano's decision, the timing might boost Rome's position in a current dispute with India. Two Italian marines are facing criminal action by courts in India for the shooting of two Indian fishermen mistaken for pirates while the Italians were providing security for an Italian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. Italy insists it should try its own military men, while India insists it has jurisdiction.
In the cleric's abduction case, the Americans were convicted in absentia following a three-and-a-half year trial and never were in Italian custody.
Roman's lawyer had said he would take the case to the EU human rights court on the basis that Romano was never formally notified of the charges against him, and that lower courts had rejected some witnesses. Romano was one of only two Americans who received permission to hire his own lawyer during the original trial.