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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The U.S. military has officially weighed in on a trial in Milan for more than two dozen Americans accused of kidnapping a Muslim cleric in 2003.

The U.S. had remained largely silent in the case until Tuesday, when the Air Force sent a letter to the Italian Ministry of Justice requesting formal jurisdiction for one of the defendants, Col. Joseph L. Romano III.

The letter, signed by Lt. Col. Robert Welsh, staff judge advocate at Aviano, argues that any legal action Romano would face should be handled by the military.

"Court documents allege that all actions taken by Colonel Romano ... were taken in his capacity as a member of the U.S. Air Force," the letter reads. In accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement, "the primary right to exercise jurisdiction rests with the United States," Welsh writes.

Aviano Air Base officials declined to comment on the case, referring all questions to the Pentagon. Navy Cmdr. Bob Mehal, a DOD spokesman, declined to answer most questions posed about the case, saying that it wouldn’t be appropriate while the trial was still under way.

But he said the U.S. decision to ask for jurisdiction — backed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates — "is not a statement on the nature of the case in Italy. It’s the same thing we’ve been doing for the past 50 years," making reference to the SOFA signed between NATO nations in 1951.

The Milan trial is the first to take on the CIA’s rendition program, in which those either suspected of being terrorists or having knowledge of terror activities were forcibly taken from their countries of residence and interrogated. In this case, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, known also as Abu Omar, was allegedly kidnapped by CIA operatives in Milan, driven to Aviano, flown to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and on to Egypt.

At the time of the alleged incident, Romano was the commander of the 31st Security Forces Squadron at Aviano.

The lead prosecutor, Armando Spataro, has argued in court that Romano had phone conversations with the CIA agents during the operation. Prosecutors eventually obtained phone records of those they believe were involved in the abduction and have charged 26 Americans – 25 reportedly working for the CIA – and seven Italians.

Spataro said in a telephone interview Friday that Romano is charged with aiding the other defendants in the kidnapping.

Asked what specific charges Romano faces, Spataro replied: "He gave important help."

Romano is currently serving as commander of the 37th Training Group at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. An airman assigned to his group said he was away from the office Thursday and the base’s public affairs office referred all inquiries to DOD.

Cesare Bulgheroni, a Milan lawyer hired by the Air Force to represent Romano, had made a motion to dismiss the charges against his client earlier in the trial.

That motion was rejected, Spataro said. But he said it’s possible the judge could re-visit that issue during his deliberations, though Spataro has argued against it.

Spataro said he will finish his closing arguments next week. He will be followed by defense attorneys.

As in most Italian court cases, sessions aren’t held on consecutive days and verdicts aren’t expected to be issued until at least November.

Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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