The Centre on Monday told the Supreme Court that it would not invoke a strict anti-piracy law, which carries death penalty, to prosecute the two Italian marines in the wake of a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries.
A file photo of Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, accused of killing two Indian fishermen. (Agencies)
New Delhi, however, is not ready to fall in line with Rome's efforts for an out-of-court settlement and putting more pressure on India by making the marines case a bilateral or multi-lateral issue.
“This is not a bilateral issue between India and Italy. It is a legal issue about ensuring that those who are charged with the death of Indian nationals are held to account for it in accordance with Indian law,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said on Monday.
The Indian government's move to drop the stringent maritime law (SUA) comes a day after defence minister AK Antony ruled out any compromise on the case. External affairs minister Salman Khurshid apparently blamed former home secretary RK Singh for botching up the case.
Read: No compromise on Italian marines case, says Antony
Italy has been asking India to expedite trial for some time, threatening to take up the matter with its international partners. Last week, Italy summoned the Indian ambassador in Rome besides calling back its envoy Daniele Mancini for consultations on the case involving Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre.
The Italian marines are accused of killing fishermen Ajesh Binki and Jelestine off the Kerala coast on February 15, 2011, after mistaking them for pirates. India asserts the killings took place in waters under its jurisdiction.
Ruling out the possibility of a death penalty, India had previously said it would still prosecute the marines under the SUA. The Italian government had been strongly protesting India's position.
With India deciding against the SUA, Italy can now heave a sigh of relief and could further look at the strategy of pointing out procedural issues.
The Italian strategy, now seems, involves fighting the procedure issues hoping for an out-of-court settlement. Another indication of it came as the counsel for Italy is now questioning the role of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) since the SUA will not be applied.
Read: Centre has dithered and fumbled on Italian marines’ case
The ministries of external affairs and home had differences on the application of the SUA. The home ministry had rooted for an NIA probe. The SUA (under which if anyone causes death, he or she will be awarded with death penalty) was eventually brought in to fit in an NIA mandate in investigating the case.
But, Italy has cited the explanation from external affairs minister Khurshid that in India death penalty was given in rarest of rare cases and the marines issue was not counted among such cases.
Reacting to the Centre's decision, Khurshid said, "The Supreme Court has to address some things again and again. Who should be responsible for it? I would imagine the person who was in the hot seat and who has to take the decision. He would be responsible."
Speaking on the sidelines of a special convocation ceremony of the National Law University, he apparently referred to RK Singh, who was the then home secretary.
Meanwhile, the Indian government, faced with an imminent general election, cannot seem to be taking any compromise route and it was evidenced in Antony's stand on Sunday.
Read: India embassy in Rome gets live bullet, hate mail
Indian officials dealing with the issue say a great deal of the delay in the case was caused by various Italian positions on the issue.
These include Italy retracting on sending the witnesses back, demanding Italian translation of every procedures and above all, once going back on the sovereign guarantee of sending the marines back after Christmas vacation.
But, the case will again be delayed while the court examines whether the NIA was the right investigative body for the case.
The case has sparked a bitter row between the two nations. Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino has criticised the "manifest inability of the Indian judicial authorities in handling the case".
Stressing that Italy's main objective was to 'bring the marines back home', Bonino said, "Italy's commitment will continue and intensify aiming at obtaining the recognition of our rights as a sovereign state according to international law."
Italian defence minister Mario Mauro, who recently visited India, also supported the move, saying the decision "reflects the sentiment of our people", ANSA reported. He also called India's behaviour 'ambiguous and unreliable'.
(With agency inputs)