Sigonella Naval Air Base in Sicily, Italy, is of strategic importance for US drone operations in North Africa. Based on an agreement between Rome and Washington - whose precise terms are yet undisclosed - the US can deploy armed drones out of Sigonella with the formal authorization of the Italian commander, which could potentially make Italy directly complicit in US drone attacks.
Since 2017, ECCHR has sought accountability for deadly drone strikes from Sigonella. This is why we submitted a freedom of information request to access important documents that contain information concerning the legal framework that regulates the presence and use of US drones stationed there. In addition, in 2022, we filed a criminal complaint in Italy against Sigonella’s commander, for his alleged role in the 2018 drone strike, which killed eleven innocent members of the Tuareg community in Ubari, Libya.
In July 2017, ECCHR filed a judicial complaint with the Administrative Tribunal (Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale, TAR) in Rome to obtain access to documents concerning Sigonella. TAR made repeated attempts to dismiss the case, but ECCHR appealed each of these decisions. In June 2022, TAR finally granted us access to some of the documents – but only a limited number, stating that other requested documents may be considered state secrets or otherwise classified on grounds of military defense and national security. In particular, ECCHR was granted access to four Technical Accords (signed in 2010, 2014, 2017 and 2021), which complement the 2006 Sigonella Technical Arrangement (TA) between Italy and the United States, regulating the use of military infrastructure by US forces in Sigonella.
Together with our partners Reprieve and Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo, we also repeatedly warned the Italian government about its potential responsibility for US drone attacks. Following up on this, in March 2022 – with close relatives of the eleven Libyan Tuareg victims who died in a drone strike in 2018 – we supported the submission of a criminal complaint with the Siracusa Public Prosecutor. In the submission, we allege that Sigonella’s commander must have known about and condoned the deadly and illegal strike directed from the air base.
European countries have played a key role in the US drone program for quite some time, and in so doing, they risk 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 on a temporary basis, US armed drones have allegedly been stationed continuously in Sicily since at least 2016.
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.
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.
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.
In June 2022, TAR finally decided on the merits of ECCHR’s request. In particular, ECCHR was granted access to the four subsequent integrations to the 2006 Technical Arrangement (TA) between Italy and the United States, which regulate general procedures for the operation of drones in Sigonella. However, ECCHR was denied access to other requested documents, concerning more specific aspects of drones operations in Sigonella, which were considered to be state secrets or otherwise classified on the grounds of national security and defence.