Controversial Trial Opens in Rome Italy Tries US Soldier For Iraq Murder

A US soldier is being tried in absentia by an Italian court for the murder of Nicola Calipari, the intelligence agent who died on the road to Baghdad Airport shortly after securing the release of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena.

While everyone agrees that Mario Lozano, an American soldier, fired the fatal shots that killed Italian agent Nicola Calipari in Iraq two years ago, that is where the agreement ends. For the United States government, the case is closed but Rome sees things somewhat differently. Italy is putting Lozano on trial for murder, even though he is refusing to attend.

Defendants in Italy can be tried in absentia, and Lozano's trial opened in Rome on Tuesday. The case has further strained relations between Rome and Washington, with the two governments holding very different views of what happened that fateful day in Baghdad.

Calipari, a senior intelligence agent, was shot dead on March 5, 2005 as he was escorting the Italian hostage, journalist Giuliana Sgrena, to Baghdad Airport shortly after negotiating her release. Both Sgrena and another intelligence agent, Andrea Carpani, who was driving the car were wounded, while Calipari was killed instantly. Lozano, of the 69th infantry regiment, fired the fatal shots but has defended his actions saying the driver ignored warnings to slow down or stop.

Charges of murder and attempted murder

Italy decided to indict Lozano in February on charges of murder and attempted murder. But the trial in a courtroom in Rome's maximum security prison had to make do with an empty cage where the defendant should have been sitting. The US has refused to hand him over and his lawyer Alberto Biffani indicated that his client would reject the Italian court's authority. After preliminary motions on Tuesday the judge adjourned the trial until May 14.

In recent comments to the US media, Lozano has defended his actions. He said he flashed a warning light and that he shot first at the ground and then at the engine. "I did what any soldier would do in my position." Lozano told the New York Post. "You have a warning line, you have a danger line and you have a kill line." And in another interview with CBS he said: "I'm just an infantry soldier doing my job."

Fabrizio Cardinali, Lozano's former court-appointed lawyer, told the Associated Press that the shooting was the result of the Italians' lack of caution. "What happened was not the fault of the checkpoint but the fault of the Italians who did not have any military escort," he said.

Outrage in Italy

Sgrena, the freed hostage, who Calipari was shielding when he died, was injured during the shooting and is suing for damages. She said that the trial shows that US troops could be held accountable for their actions. "We have demonstrated we can break this immunity that normally American soldiers have been guaranteed all over the world," she told Reuters.

The death of Calipari angered many in Italy  where he is now regarded as a national hero. He was awarded Italy's top bravery award and given a state funeral attended by thousands. Franco Coppi who is representing Calipari's widow, said that the fact that Lozano was not attending the trial shouldn’t jeopardize it. "His absence is his own choice," he told reporters. "It does not represent an obstacle to ascertaining the truth."

Although Rome agrees that the killing was an accident, the two governments have failed to agree on the events in Baghdad that led to Calipari's death. While the US authorities insist that the vehicle was travelling fast and led soldiers to fear an insurgent attack, Italian officials claim that the car was traveling at normal speed and it blamed the soldiers for failing to signal that there was a checkpoint. It also criticized the US military for placing inexperienced troops at the roadblock.

The trial is just one of many recent incidents that have soured relations between Rome and Washington. Italian prosecutors have indicted 26 Americans, all but one believed to be CIA agents, over the case of the abduction of Egyptian terror suspect Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr  , better known as Abu Omar, in Milan in February 2003.

And in 2006 Romano Prodi, head of the newly elected   center-left government in Rome announced that he was pulling Italian troops out of Iraq.


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