ROME - Government attorneys have asked a top court to throw out indictments against 26 Americans - all but one of them believed to be CIA agents - accused of kidnapping an Egyptian terrorist suspect in a case that has strained Italian-U.S. relations.
The state's lawyers argue that the Milan judge who issued the indictments overstepped his authority, relying on secret documents and violating state secrets to justify the indictments, said Luigi Panella, a lawyer for secret service agent Marco Mancini, who also was ordered to stand trial.
The Constitutional Court is also examining a previous, similar appeal saying prosecutors had gone too far by wiretapping phone conversations of Italian secret service agents. It was expected to discuss the case April 18.
"We will respect the decision of the Constitutional Court," Panella said.
Prosecutors declined to comment.
The Americans and Italian agents were indicted in February in the kidnapping in Milan of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003. Their trial is scheduled to start in June.
It would be the first criminal trial stemming from the CIA's extraordinary rendition program to secretly transfer terror suspects to third countries, where critics say they have faced torture.
Italian prosecutors say Nasr - suspected of recruiting fighters for radical Islamic causes - was allegedly taken to Aviano Air Base near Venice, then to Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany, and finally to Egypt, where he was imprisoned for four years until Feb. 11. Nasr said he was tortured.
The 26 Americans have left Italy, and a senior U.S. official has said they would not be turned over for prosecution even if Rome requests it.
Premier Romano Prodi's government has signaled that it would not press Washington to extradite the Americans, although it has made no decision.
On Thursday, Justice Minister Clemente Mastella bought himself time when he said he would not decide whether to seek the extradition until the Constitutional Court rules on whether prosecutors overstepped their authority.
"There is no interest on Italy's side to show a more anti-American position," said Franco Pavoncello, political science professor at Rome's John Cabot University. "Therefore, everything that can be done to limit that will be done."
Relations between Italy and the U.S. are already being tested by the case of a U.S. soldier accused of killing an Italian intelligence officer in Baghdad in 2005.
Spc. Mario Lozano was indicted for murder in the death of Nicola Calipari, who was shot March 4, 2005, on his way to the Baghdad airport shortly after securing the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist.
Italy has not sought Lozano's extradition so far but prosecutors have lamented that U.S. authorities have not responded to requests for more details about the soldier and haven't passed on to him documents concerning the investigation. Further dampening ties, Prodi fulfilled a campaign pledge last year to withdraw Italy's troops from Iraq, and his government has been reluctant to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, despite requests from NATO. Italy says it has other peacekeeping commitments, including a leading role in Lebanon. "Our government has an image problem with the United States of not being of great support," said Pavoncello. "Look at Afghanistan, Iraq." Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi has maintained that his government and Italian secret services were not informed about Nasr's abduction and did not take part in it. AP-CS-03-16-07 1948EDT