Italy's decision to pardon a US air force officer who helped the CIA kidnap a Muslim cleric and transfer him to Egypt to be tortured may, according to a recent report, undermine efforts to restore transparency and the rule of law after years of human rights abuses conducted under the banner of counterterrorism.
Colonel Joseph Romano was one of 22 Americans who were convicted in absentia of carrying out the "extraordinary rendition" of the terror suspect Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian who is also known as Abu Omar, in Milan in 2003.
A report by the US-based Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a US-based foundation established by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros that aims to "build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens", revealed that 54 countries participated in the rendition of at least 136 suspects since a decree signed by Bill Clinton in 1995 authorised the practice.
Barack Obama officially repudiated the use of torture in an executive order issued shortly after he was sworn into office in 2009. However, he has not rejected extraordinary rendition and rights groups say suspects continue to be subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" at sites operated by other governments.
CIA director John Brennan has stated that extraordinary rendition is "an absolutely vital tool" that "without a doubt has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives". He and other advocates of the practice believe that being in a state of war justifies the means. However, this argument has been challenged by legal experts, who cite international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions.
Rights groups are frustrated by the fact that Washington is reluctant to release documents detailing what exactly has taken place during these operations, who has been targeted, where the black sites have been located and what role other countries have played.
Meanwhile, the US courts appear unlikely to entertain demands for compensation from those who have been rendered and tortured, some of whom have been victims of mistaken identity.
The OSJI report, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, says: "The time has come for the US and its partner governments to admit to the truth of their involvement in secret detention and extraordinary rendition, repudiate these practices and conduct effective investigations directed at holding officials accountable."
Some experts believe torturing rendered suspects does not yield useful intelligence and can sometimes seriously backfire. Ali Soufan, a former FBI terrorism specialist, says: "Time and time again, people with actual experience with interrogating terror suspects and actual experience and knowledge about the effectiveness of torture techniques have come out to explain that they are ineffective and that their use threatens national security more than it helps."
This might have been the case with Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan who was captured in Afghanistan and extraordinarily rendered by the US to Egypt in 2002. When threatened by the country's Mukhabarat intelligence service, he fabricated a story about Saddam Hussein providing training and weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda. This intelligence, which was treated as coming from a reliable source, found its way onto the desk of Colin Powell, who famously served as US secretary of state during George W Bush's first term in the White House. Powell is reputed to have used the information to canvas Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgio Napolitano says he pardoned air force officer Romano in recognition of Obama's changes to US security policy, but given that no effort has been made to prosecute those involved in torture, some would argue that Italy's diplomatic gesture is sending out a mixed message.
* Paul Muir