LISBON (Reuters) - A former U.S. spy, newly pardoned by Italy in connection with the CIA kidnap of a terrorism suspect in Milan, has credited President Donald Trump’s administration with saving her from an Italian jail.
Sabrina de Sousa was transferred between Portuguese prisons and had Italian police flying in to extradite her before being granted an 11th hour reprieve last week, with a former congressman pulling strings for her in Washington.
The 60-year-old is one of 26 people convicted by Italy in absentia over the 2003 abduction of Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, but the only one to spend any time in prison for an operation in which she denies involvement.
The dual Portuguese-U.S. citizen says she was abandoned by the previous White House administration in her long fight over the case, which she plans to describe in a book. She thanks Trump’s team for helping her since Portuguese authorities arrested her on Feb. 20 with the intention of sending her to Italy.
“This administration has been absolutely awesome ... If the Trump administration didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything, I‘m very confident I’d be in an Italian jail,” she told Reuters in an interview.
The kidnap of Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was part of a CIA “extraordinary rendition” programme to snatch terrorism suspects in various countries and transfer them in secret to undergo interrogation in third countries.
The cleric said he was tortured after being transferred to Egypt under the programme, an aspect of President George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ that drew condemnation from human rights groups and even from some U.S. allies.
De Sousa has maintained her innocence, saying she was not in Milan on the day of the abduction and did not plan the kidnap.
She appeared critical of the operation itself, saying Abu Omar “obviously wasn’t a high-value target” as he was released from prison after a few months. But her main grievances are with the way she was treated by her government.
“The disavowal policy by the Obama administration in my case has been very unfortunate, because it has wider implications for all those of us who are assigned to countries as State Department officers, officially,” she said, explaining that her cover should have guaranteed her diplomatic immunity.
Despite the grievances, “it’s not my intention to reveal big dark secrets” in the book, she said.
“It’s not going to be a book ‘oh, poor me, look what happened to me’,” she said, though she does plan to address both the wider implications of the case and the consequences for individual intelligence officers like herself.
De Sousa argues that as a naturalised U.S. citizen with close family in India and Portugal she, unlike other U.S. officers convicted in absentia, could not accept a sentence that barred her from travel. So she set out to clear her name in 2015 and flew to Portugal, where she was arrested for the first time.
Unable to leave the country, she was prevented from visiting her mother in the Indian state of Goa before she died on Dec. 4.
She said “it is a fact” that being in an Italian jail would have put her life in danger, but she was mentally preparing herself to go as she sat in prison cells, first in Porto and then in Cascais, near Lisbon.
Pete Hoekstra, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee who worked to prevent de Sousa’s extradition, confirmed contacts with the Trump administration about the case and expressed his “deep appreciation to the all three governments involved in the successful outcome for Sabrina.”
She is still due to do community service after the Italian president commuted her four-year prison sentence. She hopes to serve it in Portugal, where she has family, but may still have to go to Italy - something her lawyers are still trying to resolve.
“So, what’s missing in the book is what is going to happen in the next few months ... the final chapter,” she said.
Reporting by Andrei Khalip, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Mark Trevelyan