Will Italy be able to one-up India in the trial of the two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen off Kerala’s Kollam coast in February 2012?
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government is making smart moves to save the marines, Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone, by mobilising the European Union, popular opinion and even the Catholic Church on the death penalty issue.
The EU has threatened to suspend free trade talks with India if it slaps the death penalty on the marines while India seems confused, indecisive and somewhat intimidated.
External affairs minister Salman Khurshid recently complicated things by saying former home secretary RK Singh – back in the headlines after retirement for accusing home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde of serious transgressions – who actually mishandled the case.
Playing on the all-round confusion, Italy moved the Supreme Court, arguing that even eight months after the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency, no charge-sheet had yet been filed. The court will hear its plea on Monday.
After the two fishermen were killed, Italian cargo ship Enrica Lexie fled the Indian coastline, but was intercepted in 24 hours and brought back to Indian waters by the navy.
And then Italy began its counter-moves. First, it claimed that the shooting took place in international waters and sent its foreign and defence ministers to Kochi where the marines were detained. It even tapped the clout of the Catholic Church.
But the Centre played soft though the Kerala government always wanted a strong position on the issue. The marines were allowed to go home in March to vote in the elections even after the Kerala police arrested the duo.
Although Rome initially refused to send them back, it relented later under Indian pressure. But foreign minister Giulio Terzi had to resign as a consequence.
Although Kerala CM Oommen Chandy said, “We still insist that they be tried under Indian laws”, it looks almost certain that India -- under EU pressure -- won’t insist on a tough stand. Instead, the Union home ministry wants the court to take a final call.
Once the NIA took up the case, it wanted the home ministry’s clearance on prosecuting the marines under the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Safety of Maritime Navigation and Fixed Platform on Continental Shelf Act – or SUA.
But Italy says India had promised that the marines won’t have to face death charges. And under SUA, all murders invite the death sentence. Now, India is in a tricky situation. If it doesn’t apply SUA, the case will go back to Kerala and the police will try them under the IPC, which may weaken the case.
Allaying fears that death always attracts death in India, Sebastian Paul, former MP and legal luminary, said, “It is the country’s sovereign right to deal with a crime committed in our water or land. India always ensures a fair trial. Italy’s fear is unfounded.”
To exert more pressure, Italy is sending a parliamentary delegation later this week to convince Indian parliamentarians about the need to free the marines.
If the Centre goes soft on the issue, it is likely to trigger a political storm in the election year. Already, the opposition CPI(M) and BJP have fired their salvos, accusing the Centre of soft-pedalling on the issue for “obvious reasons”.