An international court on Monday will decide on the Italian government's request to halt judicial proceedings against two of its marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast in 2012.
Italy had invoked the arbitration procedure under a United Nations convention before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in June. Italy wants the tribunal to order India to withdraw restrictions on the movement of the two marines, Sergeant Massimiliano Latorre and Sergeant Salvatore Girone, and not exercise its jurisdiction over the case till the procedure is completed.
Judge Vladimir Golitsyn, president of the Hamburg-headquartered tribunal, will deliver a verdict on the Italian plea for these two provisional measures at 11am (2pm IST).
Latorre and Girone were part of the six-member contingent of Italian marines on board the oil tanker Enrica Lexie that was on its way from Galle in Sri Lanka to Djibouti in Africa.
The marines, according to Italy, fired warning shots into the water near the Indian fishing craft St Antony that seemed to be headed for collision with Enrica Lexie, a tactic used by pirates. Besides, since the incident involved navigation of a ship bearing an Italian flag, only Italy had jurisdiction to probe the incident, it said.
"It is not accepted that the fatal shooting took place from the Enrica Lexie. There were other vessels in the area at the time and other reports of pirate attacks," said Italy's counsel Daniel Bethlehem objecting to India's charge that the marines were murderers.
India has, however, pointed out that the marines used their automatic weapons against the fishermen without any warning, the fishing boat wasn't the kind that pirates used and there is no explanation from Italy as to how the two fishermen ended up in body bags: one was shot in the head and the other, in his stomach.
New Delhi also pointed that since the fishing boat did not touch the Enrica Lexie tanker by any account, the incident involved the Indian boat, and not the Italian tanker.
Marines almost got away
For an incident that has strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, sources said the irony is that the marines had almost gotten away since police in Kerala were not too sure about how to respond to the situation.
It was only after the then Union home secretary RK Singh – now a BJP MP – learnt of the incident that a decision was taken to bring back the tanker to Kochi.
Singh immediately worked the phones, speaking with the Kerala police chief to ascertain the facts. When he was told that Kerala police did not have the wherewithal to track down the Italian ship, Singh advised the state to quickly seek help from the coast guards.
Italy wanted diplomatic settlement
During proceedings at the tribunal, Italy referred to the numerous attempts it had made for a "diplomatic" settlement but the Indian side was determined not to back off.
From the time the incident occurred, Italy has actively sought—indeed proposed—a diplomatic solution to the case. These efforts intensified from June 2014, following the election of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.
"This Italian initiative to engage the Indian government on a possible settlement took place both on a visible track, in correspondence to the Indian ministry of external affairs, and, separately, behind the scenes, between the most senior representatives of Prime Minister (Matteo) Renzi and Prime Minister Modi," Italy said in its oral submissions before the tribunal.