Reportage

High and Dry

By SEEMA SIROHI | 1 September 2012
NIKKI KAHN / THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES
In May 2009, after repeatedly being denied protection from the government, Sabrina De Sousa filed a lawsuit against the State Department and the Department of Justice for diplomatic immunity.

SABRINA DE SOUSA HAD AGREED to meet me earlier this summer, but only after doing a background check of sorts. Diplomatic caution, after all, never fades. It was a sweltering afternoon, and the fit, young-looking 56-year-old walked into a café in downtown Washington, DC, dressed in a black floral dress and heels. For someone with a Europol warrant out against her, she seemed cheerful and upbeat.

Sabrina was engaging yet cautious about revealing the details of what she called her “troubles”. As a former US diplomat, she said, she is “under legal obligation not to discuss details” of her work. (News reports have quoted her former colleagues identifying her as a CIA agent.) Now she has a court case against her in Italy and is fighting the US government to get protection.

In a mildly English-Indian convent-school accent harking back to her years growing up in Bombay, Sabrina raced through names of people related to her case. She was sentenced in 2009 by an Italian court to five years in prison, along with 22 other Americans, following a trial in absentia (none of them has been extradited). Speaking to me, she threw out pointers, counted the landmarks in her struggle, offered up opinions and key dates. She seemed consumed by it all, almost a quasi-lawyer herself. But it also seemed to animate her greatly. Fighting back, she declared, was “a matter of principle”. She called herself “collateral damage” in the war on terror.

An Italian reporter had compared Sabrina to Mata Hari, calling her an “aggressive” CIA agent who had built a chain of relationships in Milan to get information. She was dubbed “the Tiger with stiletto heels and fists of steel”—a description that better sums up her life today, she told me.

After an hour, we were chased out by our waiter on the pretext of preparing tables for dinner. Standing on a street corner in Dupont Circle, we spoke in generalities about the coping mechanisms of an essential outsider. Her voice, I thought, had carried just a hint of sadness at her not having a circle of Indian friends in Washington, DC. She indeed had American friends, many of whom had supported her—even total strangers had offered help through her attorney.

As we parted, Sabrina assigned me homework: to read up on her case. I was to get back to her after having mastered ‘the facts’. She then walked off into the blistering sun without giving me a phone number or address. I was allowed to reach her only by email.

ON 17 FEBRUARY 2003, a team of CIA agents in Milan swooped down on Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar, as he walked from his apartment in his working class neighbourhood to the local mosque for noon prayers. He had been taking the same route for the past two years, ever since securing refugee status in Italy after fleeing Egypt. Linked to the Sunni Islamist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Omar was still under watch by Italian intelligence.

That day, Omar was pushed into a waiting van and driven to a US air base near Venice. From there, he was flown to another base in Germany and then to Egypt, where he was thrown into a jail near Cairo. His wife reported his disappearance three days later, but police met dead ends or false trails.

Egyptian authorities released Omar in April 2004 and put him under house arrest in Alexandria, asking him to live quietly. Defying orders, he called his wife in Milan. Bewildered, she learnt that he had been kidnapped and tortured. Omar was rearrested soon after, and not released till February 2007, but the phone had been tapped and Italian authorities had heard his conversation with his wife.

Omar’s kidnapping was a “rendition”—one that had gone horribly wrong. Extraordinary rendition is a controversial practice devised by the US government under which the CIA has whisked away suspected terrorists to other countries for interrogation. The practice has been used to capture roughly 3,000 people since 2001, and was first used in 1995 under the Clinton administration. In most cases, the men were tortured. Some suspects were sent to CIA-run “black sites”, secret detention centres in Europe and Asia.

As Omar’s rendition came to light, Armando Spataro, an aggressive prosecutor in Milan’s anti-terrorism unit, went to work. He traced cellphone activity and hotel records to the team of CIA agents, matched them to the date of Omar’s disappearance and began building his case. Apparently, CIA operatives had been cooling their heels since November 2002 in various Milan hotels, waiting for the right day to snatch their suspect. It was long enough for boredom to creep in and discipline to break down. Defying standard operating procedure, some agents had called home, leaving electronic footprints.

The investigation was a black eye for the CIA. Unlike prior renditions, Omar’s had triggered a criminal investigation, that too by a NATO ally, had become an increasingly public spectacle. Spataro even found an eyewitness who had seen Omar being shoved into the van. By early 2005, he had built a solid case. Spataro considered Omar’s kidnapping a “national embarrassment” and a “violation of Italian sovereignty”; determined to prosecute, he netted 26 Americans and asked for their extradition. But his request was repeatedly stalled by Silvio Berlusconi’s government. Berlusconi, an enthusiastic supporter of former US president George W Bush, didn’t want to embarrass his friend.

Three CIA officers, including the station chief in Rome and alleged mastermind of the kidnapping, Jeffrey Castelli, were granted diplomatic immunity, presumably after a high-level intervention by Washington. The rest were left to fend for themselves.

Sabrina De Sousa was among those convicted in absentia in Italy in November 2009—wrongly, she says, and based only on circumstantial evidence. She was an accredited diplomat at the US consulate in Milan at the time, but claims she was not in Milan on the day of the kidnapping—she was on the ski slopes of northern Italy with her son and his schoolmates, she says. Like Castelli, who was also an appointed diplomat, Sabrina has argued that she should have been protected from prosecution because of diplomatic immunity. The US government thought otherwise. Why it didn’t protect her is the question that has preoccupied Sabrina for the past seven years. Under the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations, a registered diplomat is entitled to privileges and protections from the host country’s laws in order to perform her duties without fear. Diplomatic immunity is a well-established norm in international relations and is respected even in times of armed conflict.

Unlike the others charged, Sabrina decided to go public with her case. She saw her stakes as higher. As a naturalised US citizen with an arrest warrant against her, she faced the prospect of not being able to travel to see her family in India.

SABRINA WAS MEANT to have a different life. Growing up in Bombay as the oldest of four sisters in a Goan family, she was groomed to take over her father’s company, not to take on a government. The company, Chics Display Service, mounted exhibits for Indian corporate houses at trade fairs across the world. “My father was a huge pioneer in the field,” she told me when we met again two weeks later. She was coming from another meeting and seemed more relaxed, wearing a bright red dress with her hair tied up. “I got my independent streak from my dad. So working for the government and asserting independence…” she said, her voice trailing off. The combination would likely lead to trouble, she implied.

Sabrina described her childhood self as a “total tomboy”. “I was always running ragged with the boys in the neighbourhood.” She sailed with the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and hung out with other young inheritors of her generation.

Her family was well off, and often hosted parties at their home. “We had a piano in the house and my sisters would play and friends would sing along. Very Goan that way,” she recalled. “My mother is understated but very, very strong. Very beautiful. She would wear fancy hats and high heels in those days.”

Sabrina said she “hated studying”, but under her mother’s strict tuition-and-homework routine, she excelled in her final year of high school. “I shocked everybody by coming second or third in class. They thought ‘she is never going to make it’,” Sabrina said with a laugh. “I was a duffer at math but I liked art. My father was an artist, and so was his mother. The day I was born, I was drawing I think.”

Things had gone according to plan in what she called the “first phase” of her life. In 1980, her father sent her to California to complete a degree in interior architecture. After a “wonderful” two years in San Francisco on a diet she recalls including “cheesecake and instant mashed potatoes”, she returned to join his company. “One of my first jobs was to design an entire Tata pavilion in Hanover, Germany. It took me six weeks.” The famed artist MF Husain was commissioned to paint a mural. “The day he was painting I was walking around the site in a red flannel jumpsuit,” she recalled. “In the mural he had a figure in red.”

In 1984, Sabrina met Michael Hebert, a US diplomat posted in Bombay. Michael was giving scuba diving lessons in his free time, and Sabrina signed up. It was a decision that would change her life—a few months later they began dating. But soon it was time for him to leave and move on to his next posting in Dhaka. “Do I break it off or go with him? I had to do some soul-searching,” Sabrina said. “My father had built this company from scratch. He wanted it to be a legacy. It was my responsibility.” In the end it was going to be difficult either way. “I am sure it was hard for my dad too. He could have said no, but he didn’t.”

Sabrina married Michael in 1985, changed her citizenship—a requirement for foreigners who marry US officers in certain US government departments—and left India.

The “second phase” of her life got off to a rollicking start in Dhaka, with diplomatic parties and fun lunches, but she soon realised she was a “nobody” with nothing real to do. From running a company to being “bored out of my mind”, it was scary, she said. “Suddenly I was stuck. That was a turning point in my life.” After a month of bitching and moaning, she said, she got her act together. She completed a consular course on passport and visa services, revived her interest in painting, and put on a successful one-woman show. She created a poster titled ‘On the Streets of Dhaka’—it was such a hit that she had 6,000 copies printed. Time flew, she said.

After three years, Sabrina and Michael moved to Washington, DC, and their son was born. One salary wasn’t going to be enough for the family, so she had to find a job. “I decided, hey can’t beat them, join them,” she recalled telling herself when she joined the service. “It’s not a career choice I would have made otherwise. I wasn’t forced to do it. I had watched what it’s like to be a diplomat overseas. I thought it’s pretty cool.” Sabrina’s language skills came in handy: aside from English, she can speak some German, Italian, Portuguese and a smattering of Konkani and Hindi. But by the mid-1990s, things between her and Michael were on less than solid ground, and in 1996 they divorced.

Sabrina began to focus on her career with the US government, which got underway in style. In 1998, she was sent to the US Embassy in Rome. Three years later, she was posted to Milan. Sabrina described her designation there as “an accredited diplomat and a representative of the US president in Italy”. Her work, she said, was like that of a journalist—chasing the next hot topic in the country, whether it was political or economic. Her brief in Milan was “outreach to the other consulates”. She met regularly with diplomats from 20 other consulates. “We got together for happy hours, dinners.”

Although strictly forbidden under the law to tell me any more about her work life in Italy, she did imply that it was less sexy than one would imagine. “The thing is, people don’t go around doing 007 stuff. I mean the crash, bang, the high tech cars. How realistic is that for crying out loud?” she said, laughing. “The reason James Bond is in the movies is because that’s where he belongs— in the movies.”

Nevertheless, Italy is a dream posting for most diplomats—the work is easy, the food, excellent. US diplomats vie for Rome, elbowing and edging their way into any spot in the sprawling embassy on Via Veneto. In fact, Robert Lady, the CIA boss in Milan, who was also convicted in the Abu Omar kidnapping case, loved Italy so much that he had bought a villa in the city of Asti for his retirement. (Upon Lady's conviction, the villa, complete with its vintage wine collection, was seized by Italian authorities and sold to contribute to the $1.33 million paid to Abu Omar in compensation.)

In December 2003, 10 months after Abu Omar was kidnapped off the streets of Milan and rendered to a prison outside of Cairo, Sabrina returned to Washington after completing her tour in Italy. She was assigned to work in the policy coordination office for the Iraq War. On her trips back home to India during that time, she remembered being accosted by her friends about working for the Bush Administration. They demanded to know how she could justify it. “It was getting harder and harder to defend US policies,” she said. “They all hated Bush.”

THE PERIOD AFTER 9/11 IN THE US was one of low-key but sustained hysteria, with demands to punish those linked to terrorism. The CIA was under pressure to prove itself. And in the process, “mistakes may well have been made”, as Michael Scheuer, the former head of CIA’s “Osama bin Laden” unit, admitted in a Congressional testimony several years later, in April 2007. Omar’s kidnapping was one such—no information of value was obtained from the rendition, but in the process other lives unravelled. “This rendition should never have taken place,” Sabrina told me. “Neither the US nor the Egyptians had any evidence to prosecute Abu Omar and so he was set free.”

By April 2004, the court case in Italy against Omar’s rendition had heated up in earnest. Omar was back in jail for calling his wife and thus violating one of the terms of his release—to live discreetly in Alexandria. He managed to send a letter out which somehow reached Italian magistrates investigating the case and reporters at Corriere della Sera, the country’s largest newspaper. Details of his torture went public and the outcry in Italy grew louder. It was the first time a NATO ally was openly accusing the US of violating international law and proceeding full steam ahead with a case.

The US government does not officially acknowledge renditions, just as it does not acknowledge the drone programme. Highly classified and secret, these covert strategic measures are not supposed to exist, but enough evidence that they do has tumbled out over the years into the public domain. For years, human rights organisations have been questioning them on multiple grounds.

Back in Washington, DC, aware she was on Spataro’s list, Sabrina began looking for legal representation to fight the charges. She insisted that she had nothing to do with the planning or execution of Omar’s rendition. She was a junior officer, she said, and unaware of renditions, which were highly classified and compartmentalised.

Spataro, the Italian prosecutor, apparently didn’t need hard evidence to convict the Americans. He told The Washington Post, “To pass a sentence, the court doesn’t need the smoking gun!” The evidence was circumstantial, but in his opinion, “Sabrina should be in prison.” An Italian military police officer told prosecutors he “suspected” Sabrina headed the CIA office in Milan. Among other evidence, Spataro had traced a call from her phone to one of the kidnappers made eight months before the operation. She insists this doesn’t amount to anything and the Italians have no evidence of what she allegedly said to the man she is supposed to have called.

Convicted by a foreign government and denied protection by her own, Sabrina was confronted with a bitter overdose of reality and began searching for a way to fight back. She set up a meeting at Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms, with impressive connections to the US Congress. The head office is a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill. Sabrina still remembers her first visit to the law firm: “Even though I am not intimidated easily, I must confess that walking into the building the first time did leave me awestruck. There I was, a lowly government employee wondering what I was getting into.”

Jonathan Rose, a senior partner, convinced the firm to take on her case pro bono. He wrote a dozen letters on her behalf to senators and US officials, including then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, demanding Sabrina be given help. “It is unconscionable that Ms De Sousa has been provided neither assistance with her defense nor the information or ability to defend herself,” Rose wrote in a letter to Rice dated 8 May 2008. The government’s response in this case “to those injured through no fault of their own by this alleged operation,” the letter continued, “seems akin to leaving the wounded in the field after an armed conflict to fend for themselves”. Rice did not respond. No one did. “It was quite the runaround,” Sabrina said.

Rose also wrote to Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with oversight of the CIA. He wrote to members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the counterpart in the House of Representatives. There was no response. Human Rights First, a prominent US-based advocacy group, also took up her case, asking Congress to investigate Omar’s rendition, why it was carried out, and on what basis.

But House and Senate staffers fudged the issue and pushed back—one, Sabrina said, advised her to “go back to India” to look for a job. My attempts to get a reaction from either committee met with a firm “No comment”. These committees had been designed to serve as watchdogs against excesses—Omar had alleged torture—and a check on the executive branch of the government. But no one was calling for accountability or correction at the time, with the Bush Administration already barrelling down the path of renditions, waterboarding and ever-expanding national security powers, all under one banner: The War on Terror.

A former senior Senate staffer told me he thought the US Congress “shirked its responsibility” at the time. “It was more popular to take the Dick Cheney approach,” he said, referring to the former US vice president. Cheney was an aggressive defender of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, seen by many as a euphemism for torture. “Congressmen and senators were afraid of being branded as soft on terrorism. It is not a winning issue and gets you no votes,” the staffer told me. “And American people as a whole don’t seem particularly disturbed about someone being tortured as long as he is not an American citizen.”

Sabrina’s attempts to get help from the executive branch also met with resistance. Senior officials in the White House and the National Security Council ultimately approve or reject any big CIA operation, sanction a military plane to fly out a suspect, and deal with the aftermath. No matter whom she approached, Sabrina had doors slam shut on her.

My efforts to get a comment from the CIA about her case were unsuccessful despite four attempts. A State Department spokesperson said via email: “Because this is an ongoing legal case, we cannot comment on it at this time.”

“You sign up in good faith—you don’t expect to be thrown under the bus,” Sabrina said. Between 2005 and 2009, when the Italian conviction came, she saw a face of the US government she hadn’t anticipated when she signed up for service. She had considered a diplomat’s life as one of prestige and comfort. “Remember, I joined the government before 9/11. Today I wouldn’t, after all I have been through. Also, the US image abroad has taken such a beating for riding roughshod over everyone,” she said when we met a third time.

As the case was proceeding in Italy, Sabrina was ordered not to travel outside the US. In 2005, her father took seriously ill. She desperately wanted to go but was advised not to fly through Europe even though there was not yet a warrant for her arrest. “The quickest flight was via Paris and I went. I said, to hell with it. They can fire me when I get back.” Her decision to defy the advice and go to India “really pissed them off”, she said. “My father was already in the ICU in Goa. The priest had arrived for the last rites. My mother was glad to have me to help her and make some decisions. As the eldest I felt it was my responsibility as well.” Her father passed away in October, shortly after his fiftieth wedding anniversary.

But by July 2006, the Italians had issued a warrant against Sabrina, making it more difficult for her to see her mother. The US government informed her that she wasn’t allowed to leave the country. “That’s not possible. I have my mom in India. But they said I couldn’t leave,” she said. If she couldn’t leave, she thought, she would get her mom to come to the US—for Christmas. That, however, proved to be a heart-breaking experience.

Her mother was 83 years old at the time and needed someone to travel with her. Sabrina calculated the costs—escorted trips from Goa to Mumbai to get a US visa, back to Goa and then a flight to Washington and back. It was a hefty amount, so she asked her employers to help defray the cost since they had banned her from travelling.

“I put in a request in July and kept sending reminders. They kept saying there’s no decision yet. I kept waiting. Something like this shouldn’t take that long to decide,” she said. “As it came November, I knew it was never going to happen. I got all dejected. I never heard back. Christmas came and went without seeing my mom or my sisters. I was by myself here.”

The government did finally respond—on 27 January, the next year. “I got this message saying my request had been denied. I thought to myself, it would have been better if they didn’t even say anything than to tell me after Christmas.” She felt it “was just mean”. In a final attempt, she sent another request through her attorney in the summer of 2007, but again it was denied.

From that point on, things began to deteriorate rapidly in the private matter of Sabrina vs the US Government. Undeterred, she decided she was going to visit her mother despite the travel ban. Strong letters followed, with increasing pressure to sign them. She refused. She couldn’t reveal the details as the letters remain classified. Threats of disciplinary action came next, implying that she could be fired. She found herself in the untenable situation of having to choose between her job and her mother. “What kind of choice is that for anybody?” she asked, her eyes flashing. “How would I ever explain to anyone why I was fired for going to visit my mother?”

She felt her superiors simply didn’t understand her situation. “They don’t have equities abroad like naturalised citizens do,” she said. “These are folks who never have to worry about not seeing family. So when they turn around and say, she should just suck it up, they don’t know what they are talking about. At the end of the day, the State Department, the defence department, they are domains of white men.”

The government’s next move was to take away her diplomatic passport, but it still didn’t break her resolve to travel to India. And then came the final straw—the threat to revoke her “country clearance”. Any US diplomat travelling abroad needs a clearance from the US ambassador to that country, in this case the US ambassador in New Delhi. “I thought as long as I am working, that would be a huge violation,” she said. “So I decided to quit.” The date was 13 February 2009. She lost her health insurance and retirement benefits.

A few days later, she flew to Goa to explain her “situation” to her mother. “My mother, who was hoping to spend her years in peace, was suddenly confronted with me telling her there was an arrest warrant out for me. It was incomprehensible to her,” Sabrina said. “All I could tell her was that it was the dark side of American politics and that I was unfortunately going to be a scapegoat.”

In May that year, back in the US, Sabrina filed a lawsuit against the State Department and the Department of Justice in the DC District Court for diplomatic immunity. As the court case progressed, the US government continued to deny her avenues to exonerate herself. The only concession they made was to pay for legal counsel in Italy. Dario Bolognesi, a well-respected Italian lawyer, represents her in the Italian case, which is currently in the appeals process. Even though the US had never acknowledged that the kidnapping of Abu Omar took place, the Department of Justice agreed she was entitled to a defence as a serving employee.

Just a few months later, on 4 November 2009, Sabrina was convicted for aiding in the kidnapping of Abu Omar; with her diplomatic career already in ruins, the judgment made the prospect of building a new career daunting.

SABRINA NOW LIVES WITH HER SECOND HUSBAND David in a brick row house on a quiet street close to the bustling 14th Street corridor of Washington DC. Their living room is filled with mementoes from India and Italy, and old family photographs, including one of the couple with the inscription “Meant to Be”. David, now retired from the Department of Defense, is coincidentally an Italian American. Italy looms large in Sabrina’s life in more ways than one. To keep up her Italian, she tapes and listens to news broadcasts on RAI, a major Italian TV channel.

A news junkie, she used to listen to Voice of America and the BBC on a small radio with her father. He resisted buying a TV set for years to protect the family’s evenings together, when Sabrina and her sisters would sit around and chat.

“If I watch my life and see I’m being hung out to dry from the eyes of someone else who is a naturalised citizen, I wouldn’t want to risk something like this,” she said. For now, she will continue fighting. “I am not the kind to crawl under a rock and hide.”

Sabrina said she finds strength in family and the local gym. An hour daily on the cardio machine is a must, or the stress and anxiety will overtake her, she said. For the time being, she has found short-term contract work and is thinking of a starting a different career altogether. She juggles journalists, documentary filmmakers and book offers with a certain calm. Two European documentaries on the Omar rendition have already been made and a third will premier in the Milano Film Festival this September. 

“It’s important to tell my story to let others know the decisions the government will take when politically expedient,” she said. “I certainly don’t like being screwed over for someone else’s personal gain.” Jeffrey Castelli, the supposed mastermind of the rendition, escaped with barely a scratch, Sabrina asserted. He was never held accountable for the botched operation, and instead was promoted twice, according to press reports. Castelli then retired with full pension and quickly found a lucrative job working on government projects in the private sector.

Notably, the two accredited diplomats not granted immunity were both naturalised citizens—Sabrina and Robert Lady, the CIA chief in Milan, who was born in Honduras. Lady is believed to be on the run after he spilled the beans to Italian and American reporters, confirming Omar’s kidnapping. He had realised that he wasn’t going to be protected. The prosecutor ordered his Italian villa seized and all records recovered. E-mails, flight tickets, including one to Cairo, and other evidence of the rendition plan were found.

It raises an inescapable question—when the going got tough, were naturalised citizens deemed less worthy of protection by those who invoke immunity? Sabrina doesn’t find it necessary to use the ‘race card’. “I am not going to turn around and go like ‘this is a race issue’, and I am being discriminated against,” she told me. “But it speaks to the lack of sensitivity towards this issue.”

Last year, the case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor in Pakistan who was arrested for killing two Pakistani civilians, came to light. The US government strenuously invoked immunity for him, even though he was not an accredited diplomat. Washington also exerted enormous pressure on the Pakistani establishment, bringing bilateral relations into the red zone. Davis was pulled out after hard negotiations and a payment of $2.3 million in “blood money”. Even President Obama went public to plead his case—an unusually high intervention for a man charged with murder. For Davis, Washington asserted diplomatic cover post facto. But in Sabrina’s case, it was never upheld.

It appears that US decisions about invoking immunity and protecting employees might be incoherent at best and subjective at worst. The government seems to protect those who may have acted improperly, as is alleged in Castelli’s case, in order to shield higher-ups in the decision-making process. Or those who can bring down the whole house, as in Davis’s case. The scuttlebutt in Washington is that Davis was yanked out of Pakistan at whatever price because his arrest had come at an inopportune time: the Abbottabad raid to get Osama bin Laden was in the planning stages. Washington, it is rumoured, feared that Davis in a Pakistani jail and the attendant political turmoil could jeopardise the raid.

The trials of Sabrina and others in absentia proceeded with little interference from Washington. Were these trials the “blood money” paid to the Italians for violating their sovereignty, to nurse a NATO ally’s ego back to health?

Sabrina certainly feels so. “A few of us had to be scapegoats. Besides, the focus on junior officers kept attention away from those who approved the rendition,” Sabrina said—all the way up the White House chain of command. “Castelli and his supervisors will never be held responsible in the US. The cover-up will continue. These decisions are made by people who protect their own interests. The old boys’ network is alive and well.”

In the end, the case Sabrina brought against the State Department and the Department of Justice was dismissed, but the judge, Beryl Howell, appeared well aware of the government’s tendency to put up walls of secrecy and prevent employees from fighting back. “She was willing to give my case a chance as long as she could,” Sabrina said of Judge Howard. The case was dismissed on the grounds that it was the executive branch’s prerogative to invoke diplomatic immunity. Mark Zaid, the lawyer who currently represents Sabrina, has appealed the decision and plans to file a brief by 20 September. It is unprecedented, he said, for the US not to invoke immunity for a registered diplomat.

Towards the end of the Bush administration, Sabrina said her friends in India “were looking forward to Obama coming”. They thought he would be kinder, gentler. “But in these regards, he has been quietly continuing the Bush policies.” Despite campaign promises, Obama has “not formally disavowed renditions”, according to Andrea Prasow,  senior counter-terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. While the Obama Administration doesn’t authorise torture or render suspects to countries that use torture, she said, its commitment to prevent torture has been less than firm.

“The government always thinks these things are going to go away and we are going to put a kibosh on her,” Sabrina said. But the truth has a tendency to come out. European courts, now more questioning of US counter-terrorism programmes, are increasingly open to prosecuting cases where suspects were illegally held or tortured. The horrific case of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen kidnapped by the Macedonians and rendered by the CIA to a Kabul dungeon, finally came before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg this May. It turned out the CIA had the wrong el-Masri. He was tortured and released only after his long hunger strike forced an admission of the mistake.

The jury is out on whether this is a trend or if it will force open the lid on American actions considered violations of international law—or if it would help Sabrina get justice.

Sabrina said she feels “betrayed and abandoned” by the government, but added that “it’s not the end of the story”. If it could happen to her, it can happen to other US government employees who might find themselves under international scrutiny. “I am telling you, if that happens, the minions operating the joystick in the drone programme are the ones who are going to be hosed. They will get thrown to the wolves.”

Seema Sirohi, a senior Indian journalist, has reported for three decades on foreign policy issues for Outlook, The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika. She is the author of Sita’s Curse: Stories of Dowry Victims.

SABRINA DE SOUSA HAD AGREED to meet me earlier this summer, but only after doing a background check of sorts. Diplomatic caution, after all, never fades. It was a sweltering afternoon, and the fit, young-looking 56-year-old walked into a café in downtown Washington, DC, dressed in a black floral dress and heels. For someone with a Europol warrant out against her, she seemed cheerful and upbeat.

Sabrina was engaging yet cautious about revealing the details of what she called her “troubles”. As a former US diplomat, she said, she is “under legal obligation not to discuss details” of her work. (News reports have quoted her former colleagues identifying her as a CIA agent.) Now she has a court case against her in Italy and is fighting the US government to get protection.

In a mildly English-Indian convent-school accent harking back to her years growing up in Bombay, Sabrina raced through names of people related to her case. She was sentenced in 2009 by an Italian court to five years in prison, along with 22 other Americans, following a trial in absentia (none of them has been extradited). Speaking to me, she threw out pointers, counted the landmarks in her struggle, offered up opinions and key dates. She seemed consumed by it all, almost a quasi-lawyer herself. But it also seemed to animate her greatly. Fighting back, she declared, was “a matter of principle”. She called herself “collateral damage” in the war on terror.

An Italian reporter had compared Sabrina to Mata Hari, calling her an “aggressive” CIA agent who had built a chain of relationships in Milan to get information. She was dubbed “the Tiger with stiletto heels and fists of steel”—a description that better sums up her life today, she told me.

After an hour, we were chased out by our waiter on the pretext of preparing tables for dinner. Standing on a street corner in Dupont Circle, we spoke in generalities about the coping mechanisms of an essential outsider. Her voice, I thought, had carried just a hint of sadness at her not having a circle of Indian friends in Washington, DC. She indeed had American friends, many of whom had supported her—even total strangers had offered help through her attorney.

As we parted, Sabrina assigned me homework: to read up on her case. I was to get back to her after having mastered ‘the facts’. She then walked off into the blistering sun without giving me a phone number or address. I was allowed to reach her only by email.

ON 17 FEBRUARY 2003, a team of CIA agents in Milan swooped down on Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar, as he walked from his apartment in his working class neighbourhood to the local mosque for noon prayers. He had been taking the same route for the past two years, ever since securing refugee status in Italy after fleeing Egypt. Linked to the Sunni Islamist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Omar was still under watch by Italian intelligence.

That day, Omar was pushed into a waiting van and driven to a US air base near Venice. From there, he was flown to another base in Germany and then to Egypt, where he was thrown into a jail near Cairo. His wife reported his disappearance three days later, but police met dead ends or false trails.

Egyptian authorities released Omar in April 2004 and put him under house arrest in Alexandria, asking him to live quietly. Defying orders, he called his wife in Milan. Bewildered, she learnt that he had been kidnapped and tortured. Omar was rearrested soon after, and not released till February 2007, but the phone had been tapped and Italian authorities had heard his conversation with his wife.

Omar’s kidnapping was a “rendition”—one that had gone horribly wrong. Extraordinary rendition is a controversial practice devised by the US government under which the CIA has whisked away suspected terrorists to other countries for interrogation. The practice has been used to capture roughly 3,000 people since 2001, and was first used in 1995 under the Clinton administration. In most cases, the men were tortured. Some suspects were sent to CIA-run “black sites”, secret detention centres in Europe and Asia.

As Omar’s rendition came to light, Armando Spataro, an aggressive prosecutor in Milan’s anti-terrorism unit, went to work. He traced cellphone activity and hotel records to the team of CIA agents, matched them to the date of Omar’s disappearance and began building his case. Apparently, CIA operatives had been cooling their heels since November 2002 in various Milan hotels, waiting for the right day to snatch their suspect. It was long enough for boredom to creep in and discipline to break down. Defying standard operating procedure, some agents had called home, leaving electronic footprints.

The investigation was a black eye for the CIA. Unlike prior renditions, Omar’s had triggered a criminal investigation, that too by a NATO ally, had become an increasingly public spectacle. Spataro even found an eyewitness who had seen Omar being shoved into the van. By early 2005, he had built a solid case. Spataro considered Omar’s kidnapping a “national embarrassment” and a “violation of Italian sovereignty”; determined to prosecute, he netted 26 Americans and asked for their extradition. But his request was repeatedly stalled by Silvio Berlusconi’s government. Berlusconi, an enthusiastic supporter of former US president George W Bush, didn’t want to embarrass his friend.

Three CIA officers, including the station chief in Rome and alleged mastermind of the kidnapping, Jeffrey Castelli, were granted diplomatic immunity, presumably after a high-level intervention by Washington. The rest were left to fend for themselves.

Sabrina De Sousa was among those convicted in absentia in Italy in November 2009—wrongly, she says, and based only on circumstantial evidence. She was an accredited diplomat at the US consulate in Milan at the time, but claims she was not in Milan on the day of the kidnapping—she was on the ski slopes of northern Italy with her son and his schoolmates, she says. Like Castelli, who was also an appointed diplomat, Sabrina has argued that she should have been protected from prosecution because of diplomatic immunity. The US government thought otherwise. Why it didn’t protect her is the question that has preoccupied Sabrina for the past seven years. Under the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations, a registered diplomat is entitled to privileges and protections from the host country’s laws in order to perform her duties without fear. Diplomatic immunity is a well-established norm in international relations and is respected even in times of armed conflict.

Unlike the others charged, Sabrina decided to go public with her case. She saw her stakes as higher. As a naturalised US citizen with an arrest warrant against her, she faced the prospect of not being able to travel to see her family in India.

SABRINA WAS MEANT to have a different life. Growing up in Bombay as the oldest of four sisters in a Goan family, she was groomed to take over her father’s company, not to take on a government. The company, Chics Display Service, mounted exhibits for Indian corporate houses at trade fairs across the world. “My father was a huge pioneer in the field,” she told me when we met again two weeks later. She was coming from another meeting and seemed more relaxed, wearing a bright red dress with her hair tied up. “I got my independent streak from my dad. So working for the government and asserting independence…” she said, her voice trailing off. The combination would likely lead to trouble, she implied.

Sabrina described her childhood self as a “total tomboy”. “I was always running ragged with the boys in the neighbourhood.” She sailed with the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and hung out with other young inheritors of her generation.

Her family was well off, and often hosted parties at their home. “We had a piano in the house and my sisters would play and friends would sing along. Very Goan that way,” she recalled. “My mother is understated but very, very strong. Very beautiful. She would wear fancy hats and high heels in those days.”

Sabrina said she “hated studying”, but under her mother’s strict tuition-and-homework routine, she excelled in her final year of high school. “I shocked everybody by coming second or third in class. They thought ‘she is never going to make it’,” Sabrina said with a laugh. “I was a duffer at math but I liked art. My father was an artist, and so was his mother. The day I was born, I was drawing I think.”

Things had gone according to plan in what she called the “first phase” of her life. In 1980, her father sent her to California to complete a degree in interior architecture. After a “wonderful” two years in San Francisco on a diet she recalls including “cheesecake and instant mashed potatoes”, she returned to join his company. “One of my first jobs was to design an entire Tata pavilion in Hanover, Germany. It took me six weeks.” The famed artist MF Husain was commissioned to paint a mural. “The day he was painting I was walking around the site in a red flannel jumpsuit,” she recalled. “In the mural he had a figure in red.”

In 1984, Sabrina met Michael Hebert, a US diplomat posted in Bombay. Michael was giving scuba diving lessons in his free time, and Sabrina signed up. It was a decision that would change her life—a few months later they began dating. But soon it was time for him to leave and move on to his next posting in Dhaka. “Do I break it off or go with him? I had to do some soul-searching,” Sabrina said. “My father had built this company from scratch. He wanted it to be a legacy. It was my responsibility.” In the end it was going to be difficult either way. “I am sure it was hard for my dad too. He could have said no, but he didn’t.”

Sabrina married Michael in 1985, changed her citizenship—a requirement for foreigners who marry US officers in certain US government departments—and left India.

The “second phase” of her life got off to a rollicking start in Dhaka, with diplomatic parties and fun lunches, but she soon realised she was a “nobody” with nothing real to do. From running a company to being “bored out of my mind”, it was scary, she said. “Suddenly I was stuck. That was a turning point in my life.” After a month of bitching and moaning, she said, she got her act together. She completed a consular course on passport and visa services, revived her interest in painting, and put on a successful one-woman show. She created a poster titled ‘On the Streets of Dhaka’—it was such a hit that she had 6,000 copies printed. Time flew, she said.

After three years, Sabrina and Michael moved to Washington, DC, and their son was born. One salary wasn’t going to be enough for the family, so she had to find a job. “I decided, hey can’t beat them, join them,” she recalled telling herself when she joined the service. “It’s not a career choice I would have made otherwise. I wasn’t forced to do it. I had watched what it’s like to be a diplomat overseas. I thought it’s pretty cool.” Sabrina’s language skills came in handy: aside from English, she can speak some German, Italian, Portuguese and a smattering of Konkani and Hindi. But by the mid-1990s, things between her and Michael were on less than solid ground, and in 1996 they divorced.

Sabrina began to focus on her career with the US government, which got underway in style. In 1998, she was sent to the US Embassy in Rome. Three years later, she was posted to Milan. Sabrina described her designation there as “an accredited diplomat and a representative of the US president in Italy”. Her work, she said, was like that of a journalist—chasing the next hot topic in the country, whether it was political or economic. Her brief in Milan was “outreach to the other consulates”. She met regularly with diplomats from 20 other consulates. “We got together for happy hours, dinners.”

Although strictly forbidden under the law to tell me any more about her work life in Italy, she did imply that it was less sexy than one would imagine. “The thing is, people don’t go around doing 007 stuff. I mean the crash, bang, the high tech cars. How realistic is that for crying out loud?” she said, laughing. “The reason James Bond is in the movies is because that’s where he belongs— in the movies.”

Nevertheless, Italy is a dream posting for most diplomats—the work is easy, the food, excellent. US diplomats vie for Rome, elbowing and edging their way into any spot in the sprawling embassy on Via Veneto. In fact, Robert Lady, the CIA boss in Milan, who was also convicted in the Abu Omar kidnapping case, loved Italy so much that he had bought a villa in the city of Asti for his retirement. (Upon Lady's conviction, the villa, complete with its vintage wine collection, was seized by Italian authorities and sold to contribute to the $1.33 million paid to Abu Omar in compensation.)

In December 2003, 10 months after Abu Omar was kidnapped off the streets of Milan and rendered to a prison outside of Cairo, Sabrina returned to Washington after completing her tour in Italy. She was assigned to work in the policy coordination office for the Iraq War. On her trips back home to India during that time, she remembered being accosted by her friends about working for the Bush Administration. They demanded to know how she could justify it. “It was getting harder and harder to defend US policies,” she said. “They all hated Bush.”

THE PERIOD AFTER 9/11 IN THE US was one of low-key but sustained hysteria, with demands to punish those linked to terrorism. The CIA was under pressure to prove itself. And in the process, “mistakes may well have been made”, as Michael Scheuer, the former head of CIA’s “Osama bin Laden” unit, admitted in a Congressional testimony several years later, in April 2007. Omar’s kidnapping was one such—no information of value was obtained from the rendition, but in the process other lives unravelled. “This rendition should never have taken place,” Sabrina told me. “Neither the US nor the Egyptians had any evidence to prosecute Abu Omar and so he was set free.”

By April 2004, the court case in Italy against Omar’s rendition had heated up in earnest. Omar was back in jail for calling his wife and thus violating one of the terms of his release—to live discreetly in Alexandria. He managed to send a letter out which somehow reached Italian magistrates investigating the case and reporters at Corriere della Sera, the country’s largest newspaper. Details of his torture went public and the outcry in Italy grew louder. It was the first time a NATO ally was openly accusing the US of violating international law and proceeding full steam ahead with a case.

The US government does not officially acknowledge renditions, just as it does not acknowledge the drone programme. Highly classified and secret, these covert strategic measures are not supposed to exist, but enough evidence that they do has tumbled out over the years into the public domain. For years, human rights organisations have been questioning them on multiple grounds.

Back in Washington, DC, aware she was on Spataro’s list, Sabrina began looking for legal representation to fight the charges. She insisted that she had nothing to do with the planning or execution of Omar’s rendition. She was a junior officer, she said, and unaware of renditions, which were highly classified and compartmentalised.

Spataro, the Italian prosecutor, apparently didn’t need hard evidence to convict the Americans. He told The Washington Post, “To pass a sentence, the court doesn’t need the smoking gun!” The evidence was circumstantial, but in his opinion, “Sabrina should be in prison.” An Italian military police officer told prosecutors he “suspected” Sabrina headed the CIA office in Milan. Among other evidence, Spataro had traced a call from her phone to one of the kidnappers made eight months before the operation. She insists this doesn’t amount to anything and the Italians have no evidence of what she allegedly said to the man she is supposed to have called.

Convicted by a foreign government and denied protection by her own, Sabrina was confronted with a bitter overdose of reality and began searching for a way to fight back. She set up a meeting at Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms, with impressive connections to the US Congress. The head office is a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill. Sabrina still remembers her first visit to the law firm: “Even though I am not intimidated easily, I must confess that walking into the building the first time did leave me awestruck. There I was, a lowly government employee wondering what I was getting into.”

Jonathan Rose, a senior partner, convinced the firm to take on her case pro bono. He wrote a dozen letters on her behalf to senators and US officials, including then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, demanding Sabrina be given help. “It is unconscionable that Ms De Sousa has been provided neither assistance with her defense nor the information or ability to defend herself,” Rose wrote in a letter to Rice dated 8 May 2008. The government’s response in this case “to those injured through no fault of their own by this alleged operation,” the letter continued, “seems akin to leaving the wounded in the field after an armed conflict to fend for themselves”. Rice did not respond. No one did. “It was quite the runaround,” Sabrina said.

Rose also wrote to Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with oversight of the CIA. He wrote to members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the counterpart in the House of Representatives. There was no response. Human Rights First, a prominent US-based advocacy group, also took up her case, asking Congress to investigate Omar’s rendition, why it was carried out, and on what basis.

But House and Senate staffers fudged the issue and pushed back—one, Sabrina said, advised her to “go back to India” to look for a job. My attempts to get a reaction from either committee met with a firm “No comment”. These committees had been designed to serve as watchdogs against excesses—Omar had alleged torture—and a check on the executive branch of the government. But no one was calling for accountability or correction at the time, with the Bush Administration already barrelling down the path of renditions, waterboarding and ever-expanding national security powers, all under one banner: The War on Terror.

A former senior Senate staffer told me he thought the US Congress “shirked its responsibility” at the time. “It was more popular to take the Dick Cheney approach,” he said, referring to the former US vice president. Cheney was an aggressive defender of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, seen by many as a euphemism for torture. “Congressmen and senators were afraid of being branded as soft on terrorism. It is not a winning issue and gets you no votes,” the staffer told me. “And American people as a whole don’t seem particularly disturbed about someone being tortured as long as he is not an American citizen.”

Sabrina’s attempts to get help from the executive branch also met with resistance. Senior officials in the White House and the National Security Council ultimately approve or reject any big CIA operation, sanction a military plane to fly out a suspect, and deal with the aftermath. No matter whom she approached, Sabrina had doors slam shut on her.

My efforts to get a comment from the CIA about her case were unsuccessful despite four attempts. A State Department spokesperson said via email: “Because this is an ongoing legal case, we cannot comment on it at this time.”

“You sign up in good faith—you don’t expect to be thrown under the bus,” Sabrina said. Between 2005 and 2009, when the Italian conviction came, she saw a face of the US government she hadn’t anticipated when she signed up for service. She had considered a diplomat’s life as one of prestige and comfort. “Remember, I joined the government before 9/11. Today I wouldn’t, after all I have been through. Also, the US image abroad has taken such a beating for riding roughshod over everyone,” she said when we met a third time.

As the case was proceeding in Italy, Sabrina was ordered not to travel outside the US. In 2005, her father took seriously ill. She desperately wanted to go but was advised not to fly through Europe even though there was not yet a warrant for her arrest. “The quickest flight was via Paris and I went. I said, to hell with it. They can fire me when I get back.” Her decision to defy the advice and go to India “really pissed them off”, she said. “My father was already in the ICU in Goa. The priest had arrived for the last rites. My mother was glad to have me to help her and make some decisions. As the eldest I felt it was my responsibility as well.” Her father passed away in October, shortly after his fiftieth wedding anniversary.

But by July 2006, the Italians had issued a warrant against Sabrina, making it more difficult for her to see her mother. The US government informed her that she wasn’t allowed to leave the country. “That’s not possible. I have my mom in India. But they said I couldn’t leave,” she said. If she couldn’t leave, she thought, she would get her mom to come to the US—for Christmas. That, however, proved to be a heart-breaking experience.

Her mother was 83 years old at the time and needed someone to travel with her. Sabrina calculated the costs—escorted trips from Goa to Mumbai to get a US visa, back to Goa and then a flight to Washington and back. It was a hefty amount, so she asked her employers to help defray the cost since they had banned her from travelling.

“I put in a request in July and kept sending reminders. They kept saying there’s no decision yet. I kept waiting. Something like this shouldn’t take that long to decide,” she said. “As it came November, I knew it was never going to happen. I got all dejected. I never heard back. Christmas came and went without seeing my mom or my sisters. I was by myself here.”

The government did finally respond—on 27 January, the next year. “I got this message saying my request had been denied. I thought to myself, it would have been better if they didn’t even say anything than to tell me after Christmas.” She felt it “was just mean”. In a final attempt, she sent another request through her attorney in the summer of 2007, but again it was denied.

From that point on, things began to deteriorate rapidly in the private matter of Sabrina vs the US Government. Undeterred, she decided she was going to visit her mother despite the travel ban. Strong letters followed, with increasing pressure to sign them. She refused. She couldn’t reveal the details as the letters remain classified. Threats of disciplinary action came next, implying that she could be fired. She found herself in the untenable situation of having to choose between her job and her mother. “What kind of choice is that for anybody?” she asked, her eyes flashing. “How would I ever explain to anyone why I was fired for going to visit my mother?”

She felt her superiors simply didn’t understand her situation. “They don’t have equities abroad like naturalised citizens do,” she said. “These are folks who never have to worry about not seeing family. So when they turn around and say, she should just suck it up, they don’t know what they are talking about. At the end of the day, the State Department, the defence department, they are domains of white men.”

The government’s next move was to take away her diplomatic passport, but it still didn’t break her resolve to travel to India. And then came the final straw—the threat to revoke her “country clearance”. Any US diplomat travelling abroad needs a clearance from the US ambassador to that country, in this case the US ambassador in New Delhi. “I thought as long as I am working, that would be a huge violation,” she said. “So I decided to quit.” The date was 13 February 2009. She lost her health insurance and retirement benefits.

A few days later, she flew to Goa to explain her “situation” to her mother. “My mother, who was hoping to spend her years in peace, was suddenly confronted with me telling her there was an arrest warrant out for me. It was incomprehensible to her,” Sabrina said. “All I could tell her was that it was the dark side of American politics and that I was unfortunately going to be a scapegoat.”

In May that year, back in the US, Sabrina filed a lawsuit against the State Department and the Department of Justice in the DC District Court for diplomatic immunity. As the court case progressed, the US government continued to deny her avenues to exonerate herself. The only concession they made was to pay for legal counsel in Italy. Dario Bolognesi, a well-respected Italian lawyer, represents her in the Italian case, which is currently in the appeals process. Even though the US had never acknowledged that the kidnapping of Abu Omar took place, the Department of Justice agreed she was entitled to a defence as a serving employee.

Just a few months later, on 4 November 2009, Sabrina was convicted for aiding in the kidnapping of Abu Omar; with her diplomatic career already in ruins, the judgment made the prospect of building a new career daunting.

SABRINA NOW LIVES WITH HER SECOND HUSBAND David in a brick row house on a quiet street close to the bustling 14th Street corridor of Washington DC. Their living room is filled with mementoes from India and Italy, and old family photographs, including one of the couple with the inscription “Meant to Be”. David, now retired from the Department of Defense, is coincidentally an Italian American. Italy looms large in Sabrina’s life in more ways than one. To keep up her Italian, she tapes and listens to news broadcasts on RAI, a major Italian TV channel.

A news junkie, she used to listen to Voice of America and the BBC on a small radio with her father. He resisted buying a TV set for years to protect the family’s evenings together, when Sabrina and her sisters would sit around and chat.

“If I watch my life and see I’m being hung out to dry from the eyes of someone else who is a naturalised citizen, I wouldn’t want to risk something like this,” she said. For now, she will continue fighting. “I am not the kind to crawl under a rock and hide.”

Sabrina said she finds strength in family and the local gym. An hour daily on the cardio machine is a must, or the stress and anxiety will overtake her, she said. For the time being, she has found short-term contract work and is thinking of a starting a different career altogether. She juggles journalists, documentary filmmakers and book offers with a certain calm. Two European documentaries on the Omar rendition have already been made and a third will premier in the Milano Film Festival this September. 

“It’s important to tell my story to let others know the decisions the government will take when politically expedient,” she said. “I certainly don’t like being screwed over for someone else’s personal gain.” Jeffrey Castelli, the supposed mastermind of the rendition, escaped with barely a scratch, Sabrina asserted. He was never held accountable for the botched operation, and instead was promoted twice, according to press reports. Castelli then retired with full pension and quickly found a lucrative job working on government projects in the private sector.

Notably, the two accredited diplomats not granted immunity were both naturalised citizens—Sabrina and Robert Lady, the CIA chief in Milan, who was born in Honduras. Lady is believed to be on the run after he spilled the beans to Italian and American reporters, confirming Omar’s kidnapping. He had realised that he wasn’t going to be protected. The prosecutor ordered his Italian villa seized and all records recovered. E-mails, flight tickets, including one to Cairo, and other evidence of the rendition plan were found.

It raises an inescapable question—when the going got tough, were naturalised citizens deemed less worthy of protection by those who invoke immunity? Sabrina doesn’t find it necessary to use the ‘race card’. “I am not going to turn around and go like ‘this is a race issue’, and I am being discriminated against,” she told me. “But it speaks to the lack of sensitivity towards this issue.”

Last year, the case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor in Pakistan who was arrested for killing two Pakistani civilians, came to light. The US government strenuously invoked immunity for him, even though he was not an accredited diplomat. Washington also exerted enormous pressure on the Pakistani establishment, bringing bilateral relations into the red zone. Davis was pulled out after hard negotiations and a payment of $2.3 million in “blood money”. Even President Obama went public to plead his case—an unusually high intervention for a man charged with murder. For Davis, Washington asserted diplomatic cover post facto. But in Sabrina’s case, it was never upheld.

It appears that US decisions about invoking immunity and protecting employees might be incoherent at best and subjective at worst. The government seems to protect those who may have acted improperly, as is alleged in Castelli’s case, in order to shield higher-ups in the decision-making process. Or those who can bring down the whole house, as in Davis’s case. The scuttlebutt in Washington is that Davis was yanked out of Pakistan at whatever price because his arrest had come at an inopportune time: the Abbottabad raid to get Osama bin Laden was in the planning stages. Washington, it is rumoured, feared that Davis in a Pakistani jail and the attendant political turmoil could jeopardise the raid.

The trials of Sabrina and others in absentia proceeded with little interference from Washington. Were these trials the “blood money” paid to the Italians for violating their sovereignty, to nurse a NATO ally’s ego back to health?

Sabrina certainly feels so. “A few of us had to be scapegoats. Besides, the focus on junior officers kept attention away from those who approved the rendition,” Sabrina said—all the way up the White House chain of command. “Castelli and his supervisors will never be held responsible in the US. The cover-up will continue. These decisions are made by people who protect their own interests. The old boys’ network is alive and well.”

In the end, the case Sabrina brought against the State Department and the Department of Justice was dismissed, but the judge, Beryl Howell, appeared well aware of the government’s tendency to put up walls of secrecy and prevent employees from fighting back. “She was willing to give my case a chance as long as she could,” Sabrina said of Judge Howard. The case was dismissed on the grounds that it was the executive branch’s prerogative to invoke diplomatic immunity. Mark Zaid, the lawyer who currently represents Sabrina, has appealed the decision and plans to file a brief by 20 September. It is unprecedented, he said, for the US not to invoke immunity for a registered diplomat.

Towards the end of the Bush administration, Sabrina said her friends in India “were looking forward to Obama coming”. They thought he would be kinder, gentler. “But in these regards, he has been quietly continuing the Bush policies.” Despite campaign promises, Obama has “not formally disavowed renditions”, according to Andrea Prasow,  senior counter-terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. While the Obama Administration doesn’t authorise torture or render suspects to countries that use torture, she said, its commitment to prevent torture has been less than firm.

“The government always thinks these things are going to go away and we are going to put a kibosh on her,” Sabrina said. But the truth has a tendency to come out. European courts, now more questioning of US counter-terrorism programmes, are increasingly open to prosecuting cases where suspects were illegally held or tortured. The horrific case of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen kidnapped by the Macedonians and rendered by the CIA to a Kabul dungeon, finally came before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg this May. It turned out the CIA had the wrong el-Masri. He was tortured and released only after his long hunger strike forced an admission of the mistake.

The jury is out on whether this is a trend or if it will force open the lid on American actions considered violations of international law—or if it would help Sabrina get justice.

Sabrina said she feels “betrayed and abandoned” by the government, but added that “it’s not the end of the story”. If it could happen to her, it can happen to other US government employees who might find themselves under international scrutiny. “I am telling you, if that happens, the minions operating the joystick in the drone programme are the ones who are going to be hosed. They will get thrown to the wolves.”

Seema Sirohi, a senior Indian journalist, has reported for three decades on foreign policy issues for Outlook, The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika. She is the author of Sita’s Curse: Stories of Dowry Victims.

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READER'S COMMENTS [5]

This is an extraordinary article. But mere pawns, these human lives, left to unravel at the mercy of an unforgiving Bureaucracy, nameless, faceless, feeding off of the collective torment they cause in the name of faux- Democracy and Freedom.

It is very unfortunate that Sabrina is having to go through this. I'm glad she is taking the fight right back to them. This is a battle that needs to be fought.

“And American people as a whole don’t seem particularly disturbed about someone being tortured as long as he is not an American citizen.” , Apart from it their attitude towards naturalized citizens is showing real face of Americans.

What a great story! The justice system in Italy is ridiculous, and by the looks of it, the one in the United States is as bad, only in a different way. It is really hard not to be jaded...

It is common for bhoomiputra types to see naturalised citizens as being lower in status than themselves. It has something to do with the sense of entitlement that the bhoomiputras feel and the peer competitor conflict between incompetent bhoomiputras and over-competent aggressive immigrants. This is not a secret really - if you go back to the days of Bill Donovan, the CIA was simply a form of job security for children of North Eastern "nobility" - there were "no spics, dagos, negros and women...." only purebred WASPs everywhere you looked. You took your Yale degree and headed out to the Skull and Bones building for your interview with the CIA. After the members of Skull and Bones gave you a stamp of approval, you got your CIA badge and walked out of the building to a well paying job, a wife and couple of mistresses from the secretary pool. It was only after the Frank Church hearings and due to the actions of people like Director Bill Colby that things began to change. Today the CIA is often projected as this super spy agency that knows everything but as this case indicates, the reality is that it is a vast bureaucracy much like Govt. of India where narrow minded ethnocentric thinking plays a significant role in shaping policy. Historically also there is evidence of this - James Jesus Angleton single-handedly strangled the CIA's entire Soviet division by accusing everyone who was remotely eastern European of being a deep soviet illegal agent. Without a shred of proof - James Angleton would seize the official from his/her house and put them in indefinite detention and rigorously interrogate them. A lot of people suffered due to his attitudes and quite frankly even when it was clear he was clinically paranoid and that his deputy was an alcoholic, no one ever punished him for his excesses. Even today seasoned CIA watchers wonder if James Jesus Angleton himself was actually the KGB illegal he claimed to be hunting for - because the damage he did to the CIA's soviet division was far in excess of anything any illegal could have achieved. If and when Mme D'Souza did sign up for the national clandestine service, she effectively signed her life over to these people. Perhaps she should have paid closer attention to the agency's history.

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