SAN JOSE/WASHINGTON – A former CIA operative detained in Panama last week at the request of Italian authorities over his conviction in the 2003 kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in Milan was released Friday and boarded a flight to the United States, U.S. officials said.
Robert Seldon Lady was held in Panama on Thursday after Italy and Interpol requested his arrest for his role in the anti-terrorism program known as extraordinary rendition. After barely a day in detention, he was put on a plane to the U.S. by the Panamanian government, a close U.S. ally.
“It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lap Pistelli said in a statement that Italy “acknowledges” Panama’s decision, adding nothing more about the case. Italy and Panama have no extradition treaty, Italian diplomats said, but Panama would have been free to send Lady to Italy if it wanted.
Panamanian Public Safety Minister Jose Mulino said later in the day that Lady was sent to the United States because Italy did not formally request his extradition within the allotted time.
“The man was detained for 48 to be extradited but the extradition request was never made formally in that span of time and he had to be released,” Mulino said.
Lady, 59, tried to cross from Panama to the Costa Rican border town of Paso Canoas around 10:30 a.m. Thursday but a check of his passport triggered an Interpol alert, said Andrea Quesada, a spokeswoman for Costa Rica’s Directorate of Immigration. A Costa Rican border official called Interpol, which advised that Lady should not be detained in Costa Rica, which has limited extradition powers, but could be held in Panama.
Costa Rica sent Lady back across the border, where his passport did not trigger any alert when checked by Panamanian authorities, Quesada said. The retired CIA officer tried to cross back into Costa Rica again, where he was sent back for a second time. On his return to Panama, an Interpol alert was triggered and police detained him.
Cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was hustled into a car in February 2003 on a street in Milan, where he preached, and transferred to U.S. military bases in Italy and Germany before being flown to Egypt. He alleged he was tortured in Egypt before being released.
Italy conducted an aggressive investigation and charged 26 CIA and other U.S. government employees despite objections from Washington. All of the U.S. suspects were eventually convicted, but only Lady received a sentence — nine years in prison — that merited an extradition request under Italian legal guidelines.