high and dry
October 4, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

High and Dry: How Sabrina De Sousa, a former US diplomat of Indian origin, was swept up in the undertow of the war on terror "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 ... Sabrina has argued that she should have been protected from prosecution because of diplomatic immunity. The US government thought otherwise."
posted by dhruva (20 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
What surprises me most is that the Italians even bothered touching this case knowing it would cause a lot of grief for their ally. Is it just a matter of Italian pride? Because I have a hard time believing that the Italian prosecution cares that much about the fate of muslims. Or maybe it's about teaching the CIA a lesson?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:49 AM on October 4, 2012


So this is an injustice because she didn't get immunity for kidnapping? Well boo fricking hoo.

Also: extraordinary rendition is 'controversial', that's some mealy mouthed reporting.
posted by biffa at 11:07 AM on October 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I agree that their motivation is an interesting question, but I'm mostly concerned with the results. Italy did what Obama would not: it prosecuted torturers. And maybe that's their real reason, simply to show that they're better than the USA. Though I suspect the high handed way the CIA did the deed also ticked them off, nations don't take kindly to foreign intelligence agencies violating their sovereignty and kidnapping people.

Also, if she's so upset about being tried in absentia she could have, you know, gone to the trial. But no, like all the torturers she took the arrogant stance that no one had the right to prosecute her and trusted that the Obama mantra of "look forward not back" would protect her everywhere. I, for one, am glad it didn't and at least a few of our allies had the will to enforce the law.
posted by sotonohito at 11:11 AM on October 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


thank you dhruva. Grim. Appalling.

I realise this person does not want to play the race card but when faced with examples like this:

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.

how can you argue it's NOT because she's a brown, female, naturalised citizen?
change the hastag on #everdaysexism to #everydecadesexism.
posted by Wilder at 11:22 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


sotonohito she could have, you know, gone to the trial. But no, like all the torturers she took the arrogant stance that no one had the right to prosecute her and trusted that the Obama mantra of "look forward not back" would protect her everywhere. I, for one, am glad it didn't and at least a few of our allies had the will to enforce the law

I've had to travel a few years ago on behalf of the Irish Government although never with a diplomatic passport. I did however socialise with a lot of consular and diplomatic staff. Once she went back to the USA it was not logical for her to return to Italy to face the charges as an individual. From reading the FA it was clear she was expecting a group defense from her employer? Or am I misreading the FA?
posted by Wilder at 11:27 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's weird that the US is protecting a general in the case, but the accredited diplomat had to sue to get the US to defend her.

And, even were she not involved, she would be foolish to enter Italy to defend herself. There is next to zero positive outcome, looking at risk vs reward.
posted by zippy at 11:28 AM on October 4, 2012


how can you argue it's NOT because she's a brown, female, naturalised citizen?

Raymond Davis was in a Pakistani jail (and possibly facing the death penalty?). De Sousa is free in the United States.
posted by Jahaza at 11:33 AM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


From reading the FA it was clear she was expecting a group defense from her employer? Or am I misreading the FA?

She was an accredited diplomat and expected the US Government to invoke diplomatic immunity so that the charges would be dismissed. She would probably be PNG in Italy for the rest of her career (possibly life), but would not have faced the threat of arrest or jail.

Also, it's not clear that she actually had anything to do with the raid, but the US isn't allowing her to defend herself. Given that, it's only right that they do whatever possible to defend her, including invoking diplomatic immunity, since they have not left her any other room to maneuver.

But I think it's pretty plain that she and a few other low-level people were intentionally sacrificed, by withholding immunity, so that the Italians would concentrate on them and wouldn't whine too much when the big fish were allowed to escape. The fact that she's a naturalized citizen and has family abroad just makes it suck more for her: others in her position could and probably would conceivably just suck it up and deal with never being able to leave the US again. But that's not nearly as attractive an option for her, and explains why she is fighting the situation more openly than others apparently are.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:39 AM on October 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


She was an accredited diplomat and expected the US Government to invoke diplomatic immunity so that the charges would be dismissed.

Not a sure thing.

The NY Times article on her lawsuit points out:
Legal experts said that intelligence officers serving under diplomatic cover often claim immunity when facing criminal charges overseas. But Curtis A. Bradley, a Duke law professor specializing in international law, cautioned that “consular immunity,” the category that presumably would apply to Ms. De Sousa, was limited by treaty to “acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.”

Mr. Bradley said the rendition might not qualify under that definition, suggesting that pressing the immunity issue might not automatically free Ms. De Sousa from the prosecution.
posted by Jahaza at 11:45 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, if she's so upset about being tried in absentia she could have, you know, gone to the trial.

Except that:
She would have now way to compel the CIA or State to release documents supporting her defence
She wouldn't even be able to testify on her own behalf because much of what she does or does not know about the case is classified and disclosing that violates US law.
Even a statement that she did or did not know any of the American co-defendants and/or what their jobs were would violate secrecy legislation.

For instance: some of the evidence against her is that she made a phone call to one of the non-diplomats who allegedly/probably were involved with the kidnapping. What if that call was just routine consular business such as arranging a new passport? She wouldn't even be able to disclose that, nor would the US government supply supporting documents to prove it was true.

It is for reasons like this that diplomatic immunity exists in the first place. She would have been out of her mind to show up for the trial.
posted by atrazine at 11:51 AM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


What surprises me most is that the Italians even bothered touching this case knowing it would cause a lot of grief for their ally.

Italy's judiciary != Italy's executive

As Silvio Berlusconi will be happy to tell you, Italian prosecutors are a notoriously determined lot.
posted by Skeptic at 2:27 PM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


WaPo article on De Sousa: Kidnapping unravels a spy’s career
posted by homunculus at 3:35 PM on October 4, 2012


The end of the article has a cheery note: "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."

One can only hope.
posted by el io at 3:47 PM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


So a couple of thoughts:

My one big takeaway for me is how you'd tend to draw your roots closer as you grow older. Now in de Sousa's case, it was because of her parents' flailing health (and her dad's sad demise); it could be for other reasons for other people. This "return ticket", as it were, is something that all ex-pats should be cognizant of, when you're planning your life.

Second, while I don't want to be in a position where I appear to reject questions on racism, the impression I've gotten from the US diplomatic corps folks was that they were a lot more welcoming than, say, folks from DoD or all those folks in the military-industrial complex. In that limited sense, I'm willing to go with what de Sousa herself said, that the system was being less forgiving for its minions who're naturalized (and hence, have active family connections worldwide) than those who aren't.

These things are complex; while it's possible that there's racism involved, it's perhaps less of the overt kind, and more of a system being inflexible in helping its own, so to speak (which doesn't make it any less easy or damning, from the perspective of an Indian-American, whether first or second generation)

Now, it does seem apparent that de Sousa is also partially of Portuguese extraction, as are many other people in Goa. Now, most Indo-Portuguese now consider themselves Indian, as they should, and I'm pretty sure de Sousa herself considers Indian by descent, but it's rather interesting how others, ie non-Indians, seem to treat this.

The overseas Indian experience here in the Straits of Malacca is a case-in-point in this regard; while most pre-1947 literature from South East Asia (think Maugham, for instance) often talked about "dark-skinned Tamils" and "fair-skinned Sikhs" (as a generic example), most literature post-1950's talks about Indians as a whole. Indeed, "Indian" as a generic whole is considered a race by itself in most post-colonial countries; this, as a piece I read somewhere said, even as the cultural differences between Tamilians and, say, Sindhis are more varied than those between, say, Malays and south-east Asian Hokkien-speaking people, even though they're considered different races.

So the notion of being Indian has become a composite whole in general; indeed, even the Indian government recognizes this, in offering lifetime visas/ right to stay in India for people it deems to be of Indian Origin ("PIO" in official parlance), mostly on account of whether their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents have ever been resident in (the territory that's now become modern) India, or if they've been married to such PIO's or Indian citizens. In fact, given that US nationals need visas to travel to India, I suspect de Sousa visits India on the basis of such a PIO card, or its lookalike, the U-Visa (also called as the Overseas Citizen of India, or OCI).

What's interesting, though, is that the Indian government also uses this four-drop rule, so to speak, to deny PIO-ship as well; people who's great-grandparents-downwards have ever been citizens of the (territories now compromising modern) China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and some other countries cannot become PIO's even if their spouses are PIO's or Indian citizens. That is to say, while it doesn't use the word, under current rules, India's visa regime has a working definition for "race" that extends for four generations, and you can be denied a right to travel or stay in India indefinitely on its basis.

It's a long way of saying, if the situation was slightly reversed now, in that if it was an Indian diplomat who marries an American of Chinese descent, the American spouse wouldn't have had any visitation rights beyond a tourist visa or right to stay in India, let alone citizenship, or indeed, a possibility of working in the Indian Foreign Service or leading RAW teams in Helmand or something. Indians, whether by race, ethnicity or citizenship, should temper their responses with the knowledge of this before they start decrying the very real possibility of racism in the American system.
posted by the cydonian at 9:26 PM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


What surprises me most is that the Italians even bothered touching this case knowing it would cause a lot of grief for their ally.

Italian magistrates are independent, whereas US federal prosecutors are under the executive branch. It's a difference between the continental and English common law systems.

A taste of the different style can be obtained from the brilliant Argentinean film The Secret in their Eyes. Contrastingly, I was quite amused to see the French film Tell No One, which also offers some insight into the system (although the source material is in fact set in the US), repeatedly subtitle the magistrate as "D.A." The term implies a connection to local politics that, as far as I can tell, isn't part of the picture there.
posted by dhartung at 12:13 AM on October 5, 2012


atrazine My point was that she shouldn't be whining about being tried in absentia. She had the opportunity to attend the trial, it isn't as if she were being kept away by evil Italian forces.

What was Italy supposed to do? Say "gee, can't get the perp to show up to trial, better just drop all the charges because we wouldn't want to (gasp, shudder) try someone in absentia that'd be vastly more horrible than kidnapping a random Italian and sending them overseas to be tortured".

A few months ago we had people here on MeFi arguing that because the USA couldn't get someone to show up to a trial it was perfectly reasonable to send drones to kill them and their family. Now we've got people arguing that it was horrible and evil and wrong for Italy to try someone in absentia? Would ya'll have been happier if Italy had just assassinated her, would that have been preferable to (gasp, shudder) trying her in absentia?

My point is that whining and acting as if trial in absentia is the Worst Thing Ever is preposterous. She had the opportunity to be at the trial, you say she felt that her best chance was not to show up and that's fine. But once you say "nope, I chose not to go to this trial" you forfeit the right to whine about being tried in absentia.

If Obama had done his job we wouldn't have this problem because he'd have been trying her in a US court. But no, he had to "look forward, not back" and as a result of his cowardly and pathetic coverup for the torturers other nations have had to do the job for him.
posted by sotonohito at 6:31 AM on October 5, 2012


atrazine My point was that she shouldn't be whining about being tried in absentia. She had the opportunity to attend the trial, it isn't as if she were being kept away by evil Italian forces.

I didn't see her whining about that at all. What she was complaining about is the US government's refusal to invoke diplomatic immunity. I didn't see her complaining about being tried in absentia.

The United States should indeed have tried the people responsible for kidnapping and torture, but it should also try the people responsible for murder. As that list include Mr. Obama, it's not that likely to happen.

In the absence of an American trial, they should have invoked an immunity to block the Italian trial for the diplomats because none of the defendants could defend themselves. The non-diplomats obviously couldn't do that and would just have to accept the verdict of the court.

The Italian prosecution acted quite correctly in seeking to try those responsible, it it the inaction by the American government that is incorrect.
posted by atrazine at 7:35 AM on October 5, 2012


Strangely, she doesn't seem to understand that diplomatic, or rather, consular immunity wouldn't have necessarily protected her. It's limited to “acts performed in the exercise of consular functions”, and I'm quite sure that being a CIA agent (which seems pretty much clear that she was), never mind masterminding a kidnapping, are not acts compatible with the exercise of consular functions (which are more in the line of stamping passports and suchlike).

At best, Italy would have expelled her as "persona non grata". And, crucially, I'm not sure that India would like to have an exposed foreign intelligence agent with dual citizenship fly in and out of the country without any check. Even without charges, I'm sure that the Indian authorities would make her life as difficult as they could. And, from what I hear, they are pretty good at making life difficult.

Conclusion: If you play with fire, you may get burnt. She should have understood that this kind of potential inconvenience comes with the job description. I can't imagine James Bond whine to the press about not being able to travel after being caught red-handed.
posted by Skeptic at 7:39 AM on October 5, 2012


Also, an interesting point made in the comments to the WaPo piece linked above:

The real shame is that the local prosecutor unraveled the conspiracy with no special tools. The idiots used their own cell phones and were talking to some number in Langley immediately around the time of the abduction. A corner drug dealer, at the time, had more anti-surveillence technique than the CIA. If she did participate in this action then she should be kept from traveling outside the US or holding a job. Not as a punishment for breaking Italian law, but because of the complete incompetence shown by the abductors.

They weren't just spooks. They were incompetent spooks, which very much explains why Uncle Sam has thrown (nearly) the whole lot under the bus.
posted by Skeptic at 7:45 AM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm also reminded of the words of Napoleon's spymaster, Joseph Fouché, about a similar "extraordinary rendition" carried out by his services:

It was worse than a crime, a blunder.
posted by Skeptic at 7:54 AM on October 5, 2012


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