The Swiss government on Wednesday authorized the start of criminal proceedings against those responsible for the abduction in Italy of an Egyptian Muslim preacher allegedly taken on CIA flights through Swiss airspace.
"In the view of the Federal Council, the use of Swiss airspace for an abduction cannot be tolerated," the seven-member Cabinet said in a statement. "There is evidence that basic norms of international law were violated."
Daniel Wendell, spokesman for the US Embassy in the Swiss capital, Bern, said he was aware of the decision but had no specific comment.
But Wendell reiterated, "The United States has not used the airspace or airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he will be tortured."
Italian authorities, meanwhile, were holding a preliminary hearing in Milan to decide whether to indict 26 Americans and five Italian intelligence officials on criminal charges in the alleged 2003 abduction of Osama Hassan Mustafa Nasr, known as Abu Omar. That hearing will conclude Friday.
The CIA allegedly flew Nasr from Aviano air base in Italy across Switzerland to Ramstein air base, Germany, and then on to Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 17, 2003.
Nasr, who was allegedly tortured during his imprisonment in Egypt, was ordered released Sunday by an Egyptian State Security Court that ruled that his detention for four years in Egypt was unfounded.
Swiss prosecutors opened an investigation in December 2005 and applied to the Cabinet a year later for permission to start proceedings against those involved in the kidnapping on suspicion that they violated the country's law.
The Swiss government authorized the proceedings in a statement issued after it met in Bern.
The federal prosecutor's office has evidence that a CIA team kidnapped Nasr in Milan and then took him on the flights to Cairo, the statement said.
"Switzerland does not tolerate human rights violations even in the fight against terrorism," it said.
The Swiss Cabinet cited possible violations of the country's law concerning forbidden activities by foreign agents.
Under that law, a sentence of up to three years in prison can be imposed on anyone who undertakes actions for a foreign government on Swiss territory without permission.
It also specifies a prison term of at least one year for abduction through violence, trickery or threats, followed by delivery to a foreign agency or organization outside Switzerland.
According to the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation, US-registered planes suspected of being used by the CIA crossed Swiss airspace on at least 74 occasions since 2001.
One plane, registered to the US Department of Defense, flew across the country twice on Feb. 17, 2003, on a flight from Ramstein to Aviano and back again to Ramstein.
Italian prosecutors reportedly have identified the plane - a Learjet 35 with the call sign SPAR92 - as being used to fly Nasr to Ramstein, from where he was taken on another plane to Cairo.
If the case in Italy goes to trial, it would be the first criminal prosecution involving the CIA's so-called "extraordinary rendition" program, in which terror suspects are secretly transferred for interrogation to third countries. Critics of the program say some suspects may have been tortured after being delivered.
The Federal Council said it rejected an application from prosecutors to investigate a second case involving an alleged CIA agent seeking information on members of a labor union in Switzerland. The council said the second case did not involve any serious infraction of the law, unlike the Abu Omar case.
The European Parliament on Wednesday approved a report accusing Britain, Germany, Italy and other European nations of turning a blind eye to CIA flights transporting terror suspects to secret prisons overseas in an apparent breach of EU human rights standards. Switzerland, which is not in the EU, is not mentioned in that report, which deals mainly with members of the 27-nation bloc.
The report, which concluded a yearlong investigation into CIA activities in Europe, accuses some governments of complicity with the US secret renditions.