Drones - Italy - Sigonella

Sicily air base: Freedom of information litigation on Italy’s involvement in US drone program

Drones - Italy - Sigonella

Sicily air base: Freedom of information litigation on Italy’s involvement in US drone program

Sigonella Naval Air Base in Sicily, Italy, is of strategic importance for US drone operations, in particular in North Africa. Based on a – publicly undisclosed – agreement between Rome and Washington, it is understood that the US can operate armed drones from Sigonella, subject to formal authorization by the Italian Commander. This would make Italy directly complicit in US drone attacks.

ECCHR is seeking access to information on the legal framework regulating the presence and use of US drones at and from Sigonella by filing requests under Italy’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Case

In July 2017, ECCHR filed a judicial complaint at the Administrative Tribunal (Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale, TAR) in Rome to obtain access to documents about Sigonella. TAR repeatedly tried to avoid taking the case, but ECCHR appealed each time. In February 2021, the Supreme Administrative Court (Consiglio di Stato) finally decided that TAR must hear the case. The hearing is scheduled for 2 July 2021.

Context

European countries play a key role in the US’ overseas drone program, risking making themselves complicit in violations of international law. Italy has granted the US increasingly frequent access to the Naval Air Station Sigonella for drone strikes. While the presence of armed drones was initially authorized only temporarily, US armed drones have been allegedly present in Sicily since at least 2016.

In this context, ECCHR and its partners Reprieve and Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo also warned the Italian government of its possible responsibility for authorizing US drone operations and demanded greater transparency. This led to a parliamentary hearing, but neither a formal answer not concrete actions have followed so far.

Background

Questions and answers regarding the FOIA request in Italy.

The Sigonella Air Base in Sicily is of strategic importance for US drone operations, in particular in Libya and other North African countries. Based on a – publicly undisclosed – agreement between Rome and Washington, it is understood that the US can operate armed drones from Sigonella subject to formal authorization by the Italian Commander. This could make Italy directly involved in drone attacks.

ECCHR is seeking to obtain more information about the actual use of armed drones located in Sigonella and in particular the role played by Italy in US drone operations overseas.

Under Article 5 of Legislative Decree No. 33/2013, as amended in 2016, everyone is entitled to request access to any documents held by the public administration; a denial is possible but limited to exceptional cases set out in Article 5-bis. It is a general principle of administrative law that a comprehensive justification must be provided for any such denials.

In April 2017, ECCHR filed three requests to the Naval Air Commander of Sigonella, the Ministry of Defense and the Presidency of the Council of Ministries and received either no response or a denial of access. ECCHR had requested access to relevant information on Sigonella, including the costs of the airbase, the number of remotely piloted aircraft located at Sigonella, the number of personnel employed there, and the number and scope of authorizations given by the Italian Commander to the US Commander for extraterritorial operations carried out by armed drones.

A public administration body must respond to a request for information within 30 days; if it fails to do so, or denies access, according to Article 5 Paragraph 7 of Legislative Decree 33/2013 the applicant can file a request to a higher authority (“Responsabile della prevenzione della corruzione e della trasparenza”) within the administration to have the decision reviewed within a maximum of 20 days. This authority denied ECCHR’s requests for review in this case. ECCHR then filed a complaint to the administrative tribunal (TAR) and ultimately appealed to the Italian Supreme Administrative Court.

Measures taken by administrative authorities can generally be challenged at the regional administrative tribunal (Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale, TAR) in Rome. In July 2017, ECCHR filed a judicial complaint to the TAR regarding the denial of access, on the basis that insufficient reasons were given for the decision. In particular, Italian authorities failed to properly justify why the publication of the requested documents would endanger Italy’s defense or security interests or international relations and failed to properly consider the right to be informed about issues that are extremely relevant for public interest.

In December 2017, TAR dismissed ECCHR’s complaint on procedural grounds, stating that the complaint was inadmissible due to a failure to notify the US government as a possible party in the case. ECCHR appealed this decision before the Supreme Administrative Court, which referred the case back to the regional court in October 2019.

ECCHR then resumed the case at TAR, complying with the Supreme Administrative Court’s procedural request, but TAR dismissed the request again on procedural grounds, claiming the notification was not presented in time. ECCHR successfully appealed the decision once again: in February 2021, the Supreme Administrative Court held that ECCHR had carried out the necessary steps in due time, and nullified TAR’s judgment for the second time.

ECCHR has since resumed the case at TAR.