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Will An Ex-CIA Spy Go To Prison In Italy?

Sabrina De Sousa, shown here at her Washington home in 2012, is a former CIA officer who was convicted in absentia by an Italian court for the 2003 abduction of a terrorism suspect, cleric Abu Omar, in Milan, Italy. She was detained in Portugal and could be extradited to Italy.
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Sabrina De Sousa, shown here at her Washington home in 2012, is a former CIA officer who was convicted in absentia by an Italian court for the 2003 abduction of a terrorism suspect, cleric Abu Omar, in Milan, Italy. She was detained in Portugal and could be extradited to Italy.

In a case testing the normally friendly ties between the U.S. and Italy, a former CIA spy could be handed over to Italy as early as Wednesday to serve a prison sentence for her role in helping seize a terrorism suspect 13 years ago.

Sabrina De Sousa, 60, left the agency in 2009 and moved last year to Portugal. She was detained last fall at the Lisbon airport, on a European arrest warrant. She was soon released, but she remains in Portugal. Last month, Portugal's highest court ruled that De Sousa should be extradited to Italy.

Here's the back story: On a chilly day in February 2003, a radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar, who was a terrorism suspect, was snatched off the streets of Milan.

The abduction was part of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program — a program that De Sousa knew about, as an undercover officer for the CIA.

On the day in question, though, she says she was nowhere near Milan. Instead, she was on the ski slopes of northern Italy, chaperoning her son's school trip, she says.

"I accompanied my child with other parents to a ski area, and we were there the entire week," De Sousa told NPR, in a phone interview from Lisbon. "This is about 300 kilometers [186 miles] away."

26 Americans Convicted

Still, an Italian court eventually convicted De Sousa, along with 25 other Americans, in absentia. Several were since pardoned. None has done time in prison. De Sousa would be the first CIA officer handed over to Italy.

She faces a four-year prison sentence for kidnapping.

It's not clear whether De Sousa would immediately be thrown in prison if she is returned to Italy, or whether she might be granted a new trial, given that her original conviction was in absentia.

A new trial would mean new witnesses, commenting publicly on sensitive intelligence matters — a scenario both Rome and Washington would presumably be eager to avoid. The Italian investigation and prosecution of U.S. officials has already strained relations between the two countries.

De Sousa said that whatever the rights and wrongs of the rendition program, she was carrying out orders in good faith. She argues that what has happened since amounts to the U.S. government abandoning a CIA officer to foreign prosecutors.

"You have an operation that is authorized at the very senior levels of our government," she said. "It's considered legal in the U.S., but a violation of international law and human rights outside the U.S. The U.S. position today is to neither confirm nor deny that the kidnapping, the trial or even the conviction of 26 Americans ever took place."

It is true that the Obama administration has been reluctant to say anything publicly about the episode.

"As a general matter, you know we don't talk about extradition cases," said State Department spokesman John Kirby, when asked about De Sousa at a briefing.

The CIA also declined to comment.

Choosing To Go To Portugal

One U.S. official who did speak to NPR, who asked not to be identified said, "It's not that De Sousa has been abandoned. We're certainly doing everything we can. But there's only so much we can do when it comes to the legal proceedings of other countries."

De Sousa's critics point out that she had she stayed in the U.S, the whole affair would very likely have gone quiet. Instead, De Sousa, who holds both American and Portuguese passports, decided to tempt fate and travel to Europe, when she knew there was a Europol warrant for her arrest.

Asked why, De Sousa says she became convinced her name would never be cleared unless she forced the issue. She also says she has close family in Europe, including cousins and a sibling.

"As you get older, family becomes more important," she says. "While some people may think I did something really stupid, I just, you know, this was important to me."

De Sousa's case is raising broader questions.

What diplomatic protections should CIA officers enjoy when serving in the field? Also, what signal is being sent to future CIA employees, about how far their government will go to protect them?

"In the past, it was 'here's your black passport, and here's your letter of accreditation. All is good.' And the letter specifically says the country you're assigned in will not prosecute you," says De Sousa. "Then you watch this whole thing unfold over 10 years. And I don't think there is an answer for this right now — what protections are there?"

U.S. officials say they will continue, quietly, to work her case.

Abbe David Lowell, a Washington, D.C., attorney who is representing De Sousa pro bono, tells NPR that while an extradition order will indeed kick in on Wednesday, "whether and how that gets carried out is an open question."

Meanwhile, one final twist: The cleric Abu Omar, who was kidnapped back in 2003, has also weighed in.

He was held at an American military base in Germany after he was abducted in Milan, and was later flown to Egypt where he says he was tortured. He was eventually released in his homeland, though an Italian court in 2013 convicted him in absentia of terrorist activities.

In a recent interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, Abu Omar said he believes that De Sousa and the other 25 Americans convicted in Italy have been made scapegoats — and that she should be pardoned.

"The U.S. administration sacrificed them," he told the newspaper. "All of those higher up in the hierarchy are enjoying their immunity. These people higher up, without doubt they should be convicted in this case. They should face trial."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.