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Secrets of Investigating a CIA Rendition in Italy

ICIJ member Leo Sisti shared how he finds sources and information in Italy as part of the Covering Justice in Europe and the US panel at the 2012 IRE conference.

ICIJ member Leo Sisti shared these tips on how he finds sources and information in Italy as part of the Covering Justice in Europe and the US panel at the 2012 IRE conference.

The prosecutor is the engine of an investigation

Once a criminal notice reaches a prosecutor directly or through investigators, a prosecutor is obliged to begin an investigation. This doesn’t occur in France, the UK or the United States, where prosecutors have far more leeway to decide whether to pursue a criminal charge. 

The right man for reporters to talk to in Italy, the guy who knows everything on investigations, is the prosecutor. He is the director of a preliminary criminal investigation; he is a real “engine”. Policemen, carabinieri, a special force of the army, and treasury policemen (Guardia di finanza), while running an investigation, depend on him and are not entitled to report any result of that to their respective heads of police, carabinieri or Guardia di finanza. 

The Abu Omar case

To better explain how the system works let me mention a famous case I wrote on a lot for the magazine L’Espresso and for an ICIJ investigation: Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric who in 2003 was abducted in a Milan street in an operation of “extraordinary rendition” performed by 22 CIA agents and, according to allegations, Italian intelligence officers of SISMI. Months later, arrest warrants were issued against all of the presumed perpetrators: CIA and SISMI agents. but the CIA agents had already fled the country and none of them were arrested.

How could I write on this matter? Prosecutors don’t give out documents — they could be arrested, being public officials. Nevertheless they are available. From them you can get hints, making it helpful to track down who holds arrest warrants and the wiretappings which are usually included in those papers. 

Witnesses and Attorneys 

Other possible routes I explored was to contact a deputy imam, who was working at the Milan mosque in Viale Jenner. His name is Mohammed Reda. He got news from a muslim woman who attended the same mosque and witnessed Abu Omar’s kidnapping. Soon Abu Omar’s wife started investigating and filed a police report. So the first information I received came from inside the muslim world.

Attorneys could be a fast-track to obtain arrest warrants. They are entitled to get a text of the arrest warrant outlining the charges and often containing wiretappings.    

Policemen and attorneys

Another route is to contact the investigators: policemen, financial police, carabinieri. They help prosecutors run an investigation, and they have all the documents a reporter is looking for. 

A funny thing happened in the Abu Omar case. The Italian media got those documents from attorneys while their American colleagues were forced to ask the Italians for help. Of course attorneys can, but not always do, provide reporters with documents. It depends mainly on the “human touch”, so every journalist must be able to establish good working relationships with them. A good suggestion is to get to the court every day, meet them in a friendly way with a clap on the back, drink  coffee or have lunch with them. 

Attorneys are the key 

Once you have planted the seeds of friendship with an attorney it’s time to “harvest the grain”.

And when you write a piece, don’t forget to mention the name of the attorney who helped you, if he wants publicity. This is the real secret!

Final comment

The Abu Omar case is not yet over.

The first verdict was issued by a Milan court on 2009 with convictions ranging from 5 and 7 years for the CIA agents in absentia. The Milan appeals  court handed down its sentence in 2010 with harsher convictions: from 7 to 9 years. 

On the 12th of June, 2012, the Supreme Court had to issue its final ruling, but decided to postpone the case until July 13. Nine years have passed  since Abu Omar was kidnapped. This is the result of a lengthy system: a system where at the end of 2011 the backlog of trials reached a bulk of 3.5 million. It’s the system I described in my book recently published in Italy: Trial Italian style (”processo all’italiana”).

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