After a long legal battle the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) was granted access to documents regulating the presence and operations of US drones at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella in Sicily. On 14 June 2022, the Regional Administrative Tribunal (TAR) in Rome ordered the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to disclose two specific documents from 2010 and 2014. The request was filed by ECCHR under Italy’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in June 2017. Citing procedural obstacles, the TAR repeatedly tried to avoid hearing the case, but the Supreme Administrative Court (Consiglio di Stato) annulled both the TAR’s rejections and ultimately ordered it to decide on the merits of the case.
The Italian MoD argued that the content of the agreements is classified. Debunking this claim, ECCHR proved during the proceedings that access to several documents had already been granted to scholars for research purposes. On this basis the judges decided that the MoD had to provide two agreements, dated 2010 and 2014, amending and complementing the 2006 Technical Arrangement (TA) between the US and Italy, to ECCHR within 30 days. Other agreements known to exist, including two from 2017 and 2021, however, were not ordered to be disclosed.
“Finally the court upheld our request despite the opposition of the Ministry of Defense, which tried everything to prevent transparency”, acknowledged Chantal Meloni, Senior Legal Advisor at ECCHR. “We are very happy about this partial victory, although it comes at a high price. Contrary to the purpose of the law, the Administrative Tribunal of Rome pushed us into five years of hard and costly litigation. The Freedom of Information Act should be an instrument that ensures citizens easy access to relevant information.”
The documents were delivered to ECCHR on 22 July. They confirm that at least four US Air Force MQ-1/9 (Predator) drones are stationed in Sigonella. Based on a case by case authorization by the Italian MoD they can operate armed. The 2014 agreement clearly indicates that the US Commanding officer “coordinates directly with the Italian Base Commander (IBC) on all MQ-1/9 issues.” Furthermore, it shows the close intertwinement between US military bases in Europe. In particular the connection between Sigonella and the US’ Air Base Ramstein in Germany, where an Italian Air Force Officer is hosted in order to coordinate the operations of remotely piloted US aircrafts.
ECCHR filed an additional FOIA request with the MoD on 24 June 2022 to receive further and more updated documents regulating the presence of US drones in Sigonella and the MoD notified ECCHR that it will provide an answer by August 5th in this regard.
The freedom of information litigations are part of ECCHR’s legal interventions concerning violations of the right to life carried out by the US through its program of targeted drone killings. European countries play a key role in the US’ overseas drone program, risking complicity in unlawful actions and human rights violations.
On 31 March 2022, the relatives of eleven Libyan Tuareg, who were killed in 2018 in a US drone strike near Ubari (Libya), were supported by ECCHR and partners in filing a criminal complaint. Now pending before the Prosecutor at the Tribunal of Siracusa (Italy), the complaint indicates that the commander of NAS Sigonella, from where the drone allegedly took off, is complicit in the unlawful and deadly attack.