SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) -- A fugitive former CIA base chief detained in Panama this week was being sent to the United States instead of Italy, which wanted him to serve prison time in the 2003 abduction of a terror suspect, the Obama administration said Friday.
Robert Seldon Lady was held in Panama on Thursday after Italy and Interpol requested his arrest for his role in the anti-terrorism program known as extraordinary rendition. After barely a day in detention, he was put on a plane to the U.S. by the Panamanian government, a close U.S. ally.
"It's my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. She declined to disclose other details about his case.
Italy's deputy foreign minister, Lap Pistelli, said in a statement that Italy "acknowledges" Panama's decision, adding nothing more about the case. Italy and Panama have no extradition treaty, Italian diplomats said, but Panama would have been free to send Seldon Lady to Italy if it wanted.
Panamanian Public Safety Minister Jose Mulino said later in the day that Seldon Lady was sent to the United States because Italy didn't formally request his extradition within the allotted time.
"The man was detained for 48 to be extradited but the extradition request was never made formally in that span of time and he had to be released," Mulino said.
Seldon Lady, 59, tried to cross from Panama to the Costa Rican border town of Paso Canoas around 10:30 a.m on Thursday but a check of his passport triggered an Interpol alert, said Andrea Quesada, a spokeswoman for Costa Rica's directorate of immigration. A Costa Rican border official called Interpol, which advised that Seldon Lady shouldn't be detained in Costa Rica, which has limited extradition powers, but could be held in Panama.
Costa Rica sent Seldon Lady back across the border, where his passport didn't trigger any alert when checked by Panamanian authorities, Quesada said. The retired CIA officer tried to cross back into Costa Rica again, where he was sent back for a second time. On his return to Panama, an Interpol alert was triggered and police detained him.
Costa Rican records show Seldon Lady entered Costa Rica in December 2012, but stayed in the country less than 24 hours.
"It's just pretty astonishing that this hopeful moment for some accountability turned so quickly on its head," said Katherine Gallagher, a senior attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has fought against U.S. practices such as extraordinary rendition and detention of terrorism suspected at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
She said U.S. efforts to help Seldon Lady escape punishment in Italy opened the Obama administration to charges of hypocrisy when they are considered in light of a U.S. push to bring National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden back to the U.S. for trial. Attempts to get Snowden back have included an international push to persuade countries not to give Snowden asylum, or even let him cross their airspace on his way to a country that could let him avoid the U.S. justice system.
"We see a complete double standard here. The U.S. is saying it's so important for Snowden to face charges in the U.S., 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," Gallagher said.
Cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was hustled into a car in February 2003 on a street in Milan, where he preached, and transferred to U.S. military bases in Italy and Germany before being flown to Egypt. He alleged he was tortured in Egypt before being released.
Italy conducted an aggressive investigation and charged 26 CIA and other U.S. government employees despite objections from Washington. All left Italy before charges were filed in the first trial in the world involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, under which terror suspects were abducted and transferred to third countries where many were tortured.
All of the U.S. suspects were eventually convicted but only Seldon Lady received a sentence -- nine years in prison -- that merited an extradition request under Italian legal guidelines.
He disappeared for years, offering sporadic comments to the media, until he reappeared in the public eye this week.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is a right-leaning populist who took office in 2009 and was widely seen as alienating the Obama administration when he first took power with an authoritarian leadership style and attempts to exert control over Panama's legislative and judicial branches.