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Egyptian cleric Osama Hassan Mustafa Nasr, known as Abu Omar, was kidnapped by CIA agents off the streets of Milan and taken to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. ((Amr Nabil/Associated Press))

The United States says it is disappointed by an Italian court's conviction of 23 Americans in absentia of the 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric from a Milan street.

The case was the first trial involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program. The accused — all but one identified by prosecutors as CIA agents — were tried in absentia and are considered fugitives.

Three other Americans were acquitted because they had diplomatic immunity, Judge Oscar Magi told a Milan courtroom Wednesday.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that the United States would not comment further because the judge had not issued a written opinion but said the Obama administration was "disappointed about the verdicts."

Twenty-two of the convicted Americans were immediately sentenced to five years in jail at the end of the nearly three-year trial. The other convicted American, former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, was given the stiffest sentence, eight years in prison.  

The Americans' lawyers, most of whom have had no contact with their clients, entered pleas of not guilty on their behalf and argued for their acquittals.

The Americans were accused of kidnapping Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, on Feb. 17, 2003, from a street in Milan, then transferring him by van to the Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, where he was put on a plane and taken to Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany.

He was then moved to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. He has since been released but has not been permitted to leave Egypt to attend the trial.

The CIA has declined to comment on the case, and Italy's government has denied involvement.

The Americans' defence team has employed various arguments throughout the trial to justify their clients' actions: namely, that they were following orders, that they should be cleared because of diplomatic immunity and that extraordinary renditions were not illegal under the policies adopted by former U.S. president George W. Bush to combat terrorism.