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Rediff.com  » News » Mumbai-born to 'Mata Hari': Sabrina de Sousa's amazing story

Mumbai-born to 'Mata Hari': Sabrina de Sousa's amazing story

Last updated on: June 17, 2009 14:21 IST
A naturalised American, originally from Mumbai, is at the heart of an inter-continental legal battle that involves spies, the War on Terror and the tactic of 'rendition', in which the United States had suspects kidnapped and transported to neutral nations for interrogation, mostly under torture.

Mumbai-born Sabrina de Sousa, who became an American citizen in 1985, is among 26 American officials suspected to be Central Intelligence Agency operatives who are being tried in absentia in Italian courts for the rendition to Egypt of Hasan Mustafa Abu Nasr, aka Abu Omar, from a Milan street in 2003.

This is the first trial to examine the much-abused rendition process.

Abu Omar was allegedly flown to Egypt where he says he was kept in a rat-infested cell and given electric shocks to his private parts as part of torture. He was released four years later when he filed a civil suit against his rendition.

In 2006 a warrant was issued for de Sousa's arrest, but she has stayed put in the US after returning in 2004. Fearing travel outside will lead to her arrest, she has even skipped visiting Mumbai -- barring one visit in March 2008 -- where her mother is said to be ill. The US State Department too revoked her diplomatic passport.

The Italian arrest warrant states that 54-year-old de Sousa, working as an undercover CIA officer at the US consulate in Milan, was involved in a plot to kidnap Abu Omar who was believed to have links to Al Qaeda as well as plotting the overthrow of the Egyptian government. In February 2007, Judge Oscar Magi in Milan indicted 26 US government officials, including de Sousa, for their alleged role in Abu Omar's abduction.

The Italian media has compared her to the infamous spy Mata Hari. De Sousa's lawsuit against the US government highlights this as well.

Last month a judge in Italy ruled that the trial will continue, even while excluding evidence on the grounds of state secrecy. At the trial Italian officials have testified that de Sousa was a top CIA official in Italy.

Last month, de Sousa filed a lawsuit against the State Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeking diplomatic immunity against the Italian prosecution.

In her lawsuit, available online, she says at the time Abu Omar was kidnapped in Milan she was vacationing at a ski resort nearly 130 miles away. She even produced copies of credit card bills to The New York Times to back up her claim.

She says she has been interceding with the US government since 2006 to invoke diplomatic immunity for her, but she has received no response. After President Barack Obama took office, she tried again, but, given the continued cold shoulder, she decided to file a civil lawsuit against the US government after resigning from the State Department in February.

'Being assigned overseas to represent the US is one of the highest honours one can experience and while I don't expect credit for this service, I certainly don't expect to end up a criminal in the eyes of the world, with my future and honour at stake while the government silently stands by providing no plausible explanation for inaction,' she told India West newspaper.

Her attorney Mark Zaid has been quoted as saying that even if convicted in Italy, she won't have to face a jail sentence if she stays on in the US.

Her suit, while identifying her as a US foreign service officer from 1998 to 2009, is silent on any CIA link-up. Among the places she has served, according to her lawsuit, are the US embassy in Rome and Milan.

Interestingly, the US Congressional Quarterly blog Spy Talk, quoting reporter Matthew Cole, who is believed to be writing a book on the Abu Omar kidnapping, says de Sousa was inducted into the CIA in the mid-1980s by her then husband Mike Herbert, a career CIA officer. Her lawsuit makes no mention of this.

Before becoming a field officer, Cole says de Sousa was part of a freelance surveillance team at the US Counter-Terrorism Centre.

'Several Italian intelligence and counter-terrorism officers told the Milan prosecutor that they were introduced to de Sousa as their new CIA liaison in Milan,' Cole, who has interviewed Italian officers at length, was quoted as saying on the blog.

According to him, one Italian general even complained that de Sousa treated him like a 'Third World general.'

Cole agrees that de Sousa was not present at the actual moment of rendition. 'She was involved in the early planning and preparatory stages of the Abu Omar rendition and had some logistical role in the days leading up to it. She was not present when the abduction took place,' he said.

Rediff News Bureau