“Intuition and awareness are key survival traits when assigned abroad; they served me well given my current “hot potato” status in Portugal. As I walked in the direction of the waterfront where David was waiting for me, I sensed that my situation was about to change.”
Former CIA Officer Sabrina De Sousa
In her first open letter cleared by the US Goverment for publication since her conviction in 2009, former CIA officer Sabrina De Sousa tells her side of this very long extradition drama. Follow us on Twitter @Intel_Today
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Sabrina De Sousa (born c. 1956, Bombay, India) is a Portuguese-American convicted in 2009 (in absentia) of kidnapping in Italy for her role in the 2003 abduction of the Muslim imam Abu Omar. For the very first time, she tells her story.
Lisbon, Portugal. It was Valentine’s Day 2017, when a Portuguese court issued an order for my arrest, thereby ending a two-year extradition stand-off with Italy.
Interpol officers arrived at my apartment to find me gone. No, despite Europe’s porous borders, I was not on the run, having responsibly adhered to detention restrictions imposed by Portugal.
My husband, David, and I were asked to move out of our apartment for two weeks so it could be spruced up for sale. We had booked several temporary lodgings outside Lisbon, so it might have looked like I was indeed on the run. After several days, I returned to Lisbon for my weekly check-in with the local police. At that time, I provided them with the address of my current lodging in Cascais, a seaside town close to Lisbon.
Intuition and awareness are key survival traits when assigned abroad; they served me well given my current “hot potato” status in Portugal. As I walked in the direction of the waterfront where David was waiting for me, I sensed that my situation was about to change.
The Interpol officers had arrived in Cascais. Knowing the Portuguese, unless provoked, their preference in detaining me would have been with as little public attention and drama as possible.
I knew Cascais well, having stayed there over the past three decades at my family’s apartment in the town center. I knew where to go in order to move away from the busy waterfront area. I also resisted the urge to whip out my cellphone and call David. Within a couple of minutes I had wound my way up through a maze of largely deserted narrow, cobbled streets away from the busy center of town.
Three Interpol officers, dressed to blend in with the crowd, quickly closed in on me; two converging from side streets. Watchful, not quite sure what to expect as a reaction from me. They stood a short distance in front of me, blocking off any forward movement on my part. From behind, the third closed in. I heard my name called. I was ordered to go with them, calmly, they added. My request to call David was denied. Within an hour, we had arrived at the Interpol headquarters in Lisbon.
At the waterfront, David waited, texted, then called me. He returned to the hotel hoping for a call from me – not about me.
I spent the next ten days in a Portuguese prison awaiting extradition to Italy, having been convicted for planning to kidnap a Muslim cleric, Abu Omar. Over the years, much has been opined about the alleged kidnapping of Abu Omar in Italy, by alleged CIA officers of whom I was allegedly one.
Within a year of his incarceration, Abu Omar was released from an Egyptian prison for lack of prosecutable evidence against him. In yet another unexpected twist to this decade plus story, Abu Omar spoke out in my defense.
Portugal’s decision to extradite me was unexpected. The first attempt to extradite was in the summer of 2016. There was no reaction from Washington. The second attempt, in early December 2016 during the Obama/Trump transition period, was ordered with a sense of urgency and without waiting for Portugal’s highest court to rule. That extradition was delayed due to previously scheduled surgery. When cleared to travel, President Obama had 48 hours left in office. (I soon filed “de Sousa vs Portugal” with the European Court of Human Rights.)
The newly installed Trump Administration moved swiftly to mitigate the situation. The result was an 11th hour, one-year pardon by the Italian President. This removed prison time, but I am required to complete the remainder of the three-year sentence through probation. The Trump Administration, in concert with Italy, had accomplished more in a few weeks, than in the eight years of the outgoing administration.
I had resigned in 2009 (from my government position), since my expectation of “hope and change” did not translate to resolution in the ongoing Abu Omar case. As a naturalized US citizen, all of my immediate family lives abroad. A travel ban left me with no choice but to resign, so I could be with my 80 year-old mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. I lost my livelihood and my pension.
Like many of my colleagues in the government, I became increasingly discouraged by what appeared to be President Obama’s practice of handing over responsibility to his subordinates – for decisions that would eventually shape his legacy. Some of those decisions resulted in criminal cases abroad against our military, diplomats, and intelligence officers. Foreign prosecutors and human rights groups felt free to police our backyard because we failed to do so ourselves.
A precedent was set. As Commander In Chief, President Obama sent a chilling message to friend and foe: When politically expedient, we will sacrifice our own. Our own rank and file, who often have no input or knowledge into the decision-making process, are then left holding the bag.
When President Trump took office he vowed to make America great again, by restoring America’s military might and engaging with our foreign partners on many issues in the spirit of mutual reciprocity.
It is, therefore, heartening to hear President Trump often acknowledge the contributions of the rank and file within the government. A mighty military can only be effective if the rank and file believe that their Command In Chief will not abandon them on the battlefield and will acknowledge their sacrifices when they return home.
Similarly, US missions abroad require a huge commitment in resources if we are to effectively further our national security and economic interests. US Diplomats and Intelligence officers – the rank and file – work closely with our foreign counterparts in areas of mutual interest and shared objectives, particularly in countering the threat of terrorism. On this issue, when our foreign partners ask for our help, it’s often with the knowledge that we may use measures that may be unpalatable to their own citizens, but necessary for their protection. However, when politically advantageous, the same partners undermine that trust and cooperation with actions that are perceived as being against US interests.
As a former government rank and file officer, for me the “Trump effect” was evident even during the transition period by way of support from U.S. Embassy Portugal. Once in office, the Trump Administration’s public comments were more point-specific than boiler-plate. For the first time, the White House firmly stated the US government’s position regarding my conviction and sentencing that took place almost a decade ago in Italy.
While this long overdue comment may have been lost in the on-going extradition drama, I believe it sends a clear and positive message to the rank and file serving under the Trump Administration. We will have your back.
Having been through what I have over the past decade, this is indeed significant.
Abu Omar was abducted on February 17 2003 in Milan by the CIA. and transported to the Aviano Air Base, from which he was transferred to Egypt, where he was interrogated.
A European Arrest Warrant valid throughout Europe was issued in 2006 by Italian authorities for her arrest. (They named her publicly in July 2008.)
In 2012, Italy’s supreme court of cassation upheld the sentences handed down after the trial in absentia of de Sousa, 22 other CIA operatives and a US soldier. They were given jail terms ranging from seven to nine years. De Sousa’s sentence was later reduced to four years.
De Sousa was arrested in Portugal under that arrest warrant in 2015. She was briefly detained at the Lisbon airport in Portugal on October 5 2015. Her passport was confiscated.
In January 2016, she was ordered extradited to Italy. On April 11, 2016, the Portuguese Supreme Court upheld De Sousa’s extradition.
On 8 June 2016, the Portuguese Constitutional Court upheld the Supreme Court’s decision.
Sabrina de Sousa was due to be extradited to Italy to serve her sentence before June 18. (Indeed, the law allows for at most 10 days.)
On February 20 2017, the Portuguese authorities detained the former undercover C.I.A. officer. But, at the very last-minute, Sabrina de Sousa was granted a partial pardon by the Italian President. Free to travel, she returned to the US.
On July 7 2017, Sabrina de Sousa returned to Italy to do community service — the equivalent of house arrest.
On November 6 2017, a court in Milan approved a 3-year long community service, namely to teach English to minors in Rome province.
Former CIA agent faces punishment in Italy
Former CIA agent to do community service for cleric kidnap — AP
Ex-CIA Agent Loses Latest Italy Extradition Appeal — NYT 18 Nov 2016
Ex-CIA officer faces imminent extradition to Italy, hopes Trump can help — FoxNews 15 January 2017
U.S. Refusing to Intervene as Ex-CIA Agent Faces Extradition, Prison, in Italy — The Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), 13 January 2017
Portugal Detains Former C.I.A. Officer Sought by Italy — NYT February 22 2017
Former CIA Sabrina De Sousa — My Time To Speak