After being detained for a day or two by Panamanian authorities on a request from Interpol, retired US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station chief Robert Seldon Lady was released on July 19 and placed on a plane bound for the US. In 2009 an Italian court sentenced Lady in absentia to nine years in prison for the Feb. 17, 2003 kidnapping of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, an Egyptian-born Muslim cleric and suspected terrorist also known as Abu Omar, on a street in Milan. Although 22 other US citizens were convicted in the kidnapping case, Italy has only been seeking Lady, who headed the CIA's Milan station; the others received lighter sentences that don't warrant extradition requests under Italian law.
The government of right-wing Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli gave no explanation for releasing Lady, who was detained either on July 17 or on July 18—officials gave different dates—after attempting to enter Costa Rica, which sent him back to Panama. The US strongly opposed Italy's decision to try the 23 US citizens. This was the first case ever against the US government's "extraordinary rendition" program, through which the US turned terrorism suspects over to friendly regimes for interrogation; Nasr was flown to Egypt, where he said he was repeatedly tortured by the government of former president Hosni Mubarak before finally being released without any charges.
"We see a complete double standard here," Katherine Gallagher, a senior attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), told the Associated Press wire service. Gallagher compared Lady's situation with that of former US intelligence employee Edward Snowden, wanted by the US for leaking classified documents. "The US is saying it's so important for Snowden to face charges in the US, where there is a great deal of debate over whether those charges are legitimate, as opposed to Lady, where there is a conviction for torture, a universally recognized crime."
Lady, known as "Mister Bob," was born in Honduras in 1954 to US citizen parents. He apparently had a long career in the CIA. According to articles by Jean-Guy Allard, a reporter for the Cuban Communist Party publication Granma, Lady worked with Cuban-American CIA "assets" Luis Posada Carriles and Félix Rodríguez Mendigutía in El Salvador and Honduras during the 1980s in a supply operation for the US-backed contras, right-wing rebels against Nicaragua's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government. Allard said Lady worked with Iranian arms dealer Manuchar Ghorbanifar in a CIA operation that raised money for the contras through illegal arms sales to Iran; when exposed, the "Contragate" scandal shook the government of then-president Ronald Reagan (1981-1989).
Allard also linked Lady to alleged arms dealer Gerard Latchinian, whose associate Yehuda Leitner reportedly supplied arms and toxic gas to the regime of de facto Honduran president Roberto Micheletti after the overthrow of President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales in a June 2009 military coup. Since fleeing Italy in 2005 Lady has reportedly been living in Honduras, working as a security consultant. Interestingly, the first of Allard's articles is dated July 17 on the Granma website. This would indicate that the article, which doesn't mention Lady's detention, was posted either on the day that Lady was detained or the day before. (Granma, July 17; USA Today, July 19, from AP; Kaos en la Red, July 19; Kansas City Star, July 19, from McClatchy)
In contrast to their treatment of former CIA agent Lady, Panamanian authorities continued to hold a North Korean freighter and its crew as of July 20, a week after seizing the ship, the Chong Chon Gang, allegedly for suspicious behavior as it was approaching the Panama Canal on its way to Korea from Cuba. While searching the ship on July 15, Panamanian officials discovered old Soviet weapons hidden in a cargo of Cuban sugar. On July 16 Cuba's Foreign Ministry announced that in addition to 10,000 tons of sugar, the ship was carrying "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons" sent to North Korea "to be repaired and returned to Cuba." The ministry said the weapons included two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for MiG-21s; the equipment was manufactured in the middle of the 20th century.
Panama refuses to release the ship on the grounds that the weapons might violate a United Nations embargo against arms shipments to North Korea and because the ship was apparently intending to use the canal without declaring the weapons, as required by Panamanian law. (CNN, July 16; Reuters, July 20)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 21.