Italy's deputy foreign minister Staffan de Mistura urged India on Friday to bring two Italian marines facing murder charges to court quickly as they returned to face trial in New Delhi.
In this file photograph, Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre (R) and Salvatore Girone (L) arriving at Ciampino airport near Rome. AFP photo
"The sooner we see the special court going ahead and concluding the better it is," de Mistura told a press conference at the Italian embassy, adding, "In the current circumstances the matter of a very few months would be the ideal."
The two marines – Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone – had been held in India since February 2012 after a shooting incident in international waters in which two Indian fishermen, Jelestine Valentine and Ajesh Binki, were killed.
After the marines were granted bail by the Supreme Court to fly home to vote last month, Italy announced it would not return the men, sparking fury in New Delhi.
Staffan de Mistura said a "diplomatic crisis" had been averted with the return of the men to New Delhi and he acknowledged the U-turn in Rome might "be appearing a bit odd."
The change of heart came after Italy received an undertaking from the Indian government that the marines did not face the possibility of the death penalty, which is handed down in India for the "rarest of rare" crimes, he said.
"For us the death penalty is a no-no," he explained. "Can you imagine for our own military? It is even more of a no-no."
The two Italian marines accused of killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast returned to India on Friday after India gave an assurance that they will not face death penalty nor will they be arrested, bringing to an end a raging 11-day diplomatic row between the two countries.
The marines, Massimiliano Latore and Salvatore Girone, arrested in connection with the killing of the fishermen in February last year returned late this evening in the company of Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Steffan de Mistura in a military plane.
The dramatic u-turn by the Italian government, which had earlier last week said the two marines would not be sent back, enabled the marines to meet the deadline set by the Supreme Court when it gave them permission to go for a month to vote in the elections there.
With the Supreme Court acting tough and restraining the Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving the country, Italy sought and got assurances to enable the marines' return.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who denied any deal was reached on the issue, told Parliament that Italy had sought "clarifications" on death penalty and other issues which were a matter of "concern" to that country.
"It (Italy) sought from India clarifications regarding the conditions applicable to the marines on their return and the provisions regarding the death penalty that could be applicable in this case which was an Italian concern.
"Notwithstanding the pending proceedings, the government has informed the Italian government that the two marines will not be liable for arrest if they return within the time frame laid down by the Supreme Court of India," he said.
India also allayed Italy's fears by saying that "according to well-settled Indian jurisprudence, this case would not fall in the category of matters which attract the death penalty, that is to say the rarest of rare cases. Therefore, there need not be any apprehension in this regard," Khurshid said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was bitter after Italy reneged on its commitments earlier, welcomed the decision to send back the marines, saying the "integrity and dignity of Indian judicial process has been upheld".
He expressed happiness that the matter was being "brought to a satisfactory conclusion" and the trial will now proceed as per the directions of the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, government and the opposition clashed over who gets the credit for Italy sending back its two Marines to India to face trial, a decision welcomed across the political spectrum.
External affairs minister Salman Khurshid credited Government's diplomacy for the return of the marines to face trial in the killing of two Indian fishermen off Kerala coast last year.
"I can certainly say we have been in constant contact. I have repeatedly said that you should not write off diplomacy too soon. So at last I can say that diplomacy continues to work when everybody else thinks that everything is lost and please give diplomacy a little more chance to do things that are important for our country," he said. "The MEA was in the forefront."
Khurshid said he found it difficult to concede that the Opposition contributed to the resolution of the diplomatic standoff between India and Italy.
"I find it difficult to accept that postures and positions taken by Opposition leaders could have contributed to this," he said. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Supreme Court's position too helped resolve the crisis.
Slamming the government for claiming success of diplomacy for the return of marines, BJP and other opposition parties insisted that it was only due to Supreme Court pressure that the Italians had relented.
"Today is the day of the rule of law in India. Italy is sending the two marines back. It is due to the strictness shown by the Supreme Court that the two marines who used to go back for Christmas and voting in the elections have been called back," BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said.
"Khurshid is taking credit for this. Mastermind of the Mumbai blasts Dawood Ibrahim is still in Pakistan. Why does he not bring them back? Even the Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed is there. Government should bring them back," he said.
CPI(M) MP from Kerala K N Balagopal said Italy's decision to send back marines was the victory of "the collective effort of the Indian people, Parliament and judiciary".
Finance minister P Chidambaram said, "If the government's diplomacy succeeds and BJP takes credit, I have no problem. But, ultimately it's the government's diplomacy which has succeeded."