MILAN - An Italian judge sentenced 23 former CIA agents to up to eight years in prison Wednesday for the abduction of a Muslim cleric in a symbolic ruling against "rendition" flights used by the former U.S. government.
The Americans were all tried in absentia after the United States refused to extradite them. But the verdict, the first of its kind, was welcomed by rights campaigners who have long complained the renditions policy violated basic human rights.
Judge Oscar Magi dropped the case against three Americans, including a former CIA Rome station chief, for the abduction of Egyptian-born cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who was snatched off a Milan street in 2003 and flown to Egypt for interrogation.
He also acquitted the former head of Italy's Sismi military intelligence service, Nicolo Pollari, and his former deputy, ruling that evidence against them violated state secrecy rules.
Magi sentenced the former head of the CIA's Milan station, Robert Seldon Lady, to eight years in prison and the other 22 former CIA agents to five years each.
He ruled that those convicted should paid 1 million euros in damages to Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, and 500,000 euros to his wife.
Abu Omar was secretly flown from Aviano airbase in northeast Italy via Ramstein base in Germany to Egypt, where he says he was tortured and held until 2007 without charge.
It is the first case of its kind to contest the practice of "extraordinary rendition" under the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush, in which terrorism suspects were captured in one country and taken for questioning in another, where interrogation techniques were tougher.
(Reporting by Emilio Parodi and Daniel Flynn; writing by Daniel Flynn)