Rs 60,000-cr arms biz at stake, Italy marines return

  • Jayanth Jacob, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
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  • Updated: Mar 23, 2013 13:15 IST

In this file photograph, Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre (R) and Salvatore Girone (L) arriving at Ciampino airport near Rome. AFP photo

What forced the Italian U-turn — sending back the two marines accused of killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast in February — is still a surprise to India, as the Italian government announced only last week that the marines would not go back to India.

Italy stuck to its position till two days before softening its stand on Thursday, ending the 11-day-long diplomatic row, as marines Massimiliano Latore and Salvatore Girone met the March 22 deadline the Supreme Court had set when allowing them to visit home to vote in the elections there.

Sources in the government revealed that two days ago, key Italian negotiator and junior foreign minister Staffan de Mistura sounded out Indian interlocutors, including foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, with a “reasonable approach”.

The Italians, who took a very strong stand on the controversy over the jurisdiction of Indian authorities to try the marines in their three note verbale on March 6, 11 and 15, sounded more like “concerned authorities” willing to see the reason.

What might have turned the tide could be Rome's realisation that the stand-off could prove counter-productive, as it was made "aware of India reviewing bilateral ties". Scale-down of ties could have hit Italy hard.

India could have tightened the screws on Italian defence firms eyeing Indian business worth more than Rs 60,000 crore. The first casualty could have been defence group Finmeccanica, accused in the VVIP chopper scam.

But during the final lap of negotiations, Mistura sought a set of assurances from India to put before a committee, chaired by the Italian prime minister. He said the marines must not face capital punishment and not be arrested on arrival.

Besides, he wanted the Italian ambassador and the marines' safety to be ensured, diplomatic-level discussions on the "controversy" over jurisdiction and fast arbitration.

India was willing to accept most of the demands if the Italians followed the Supreme Court direction and sent the marines back by March 22. Italy was told that it should accept Supreme Court order on jurisdiction, but it would get the chance to make its points in the special court.

Less than 24 hours after Italy reversed its stand, Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid announced it in Parliament. He said the trial of the marines would now proceed according to the directions of the Supreme Court on January 18.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "I am happy that the integrity and dignity of the Indian judicial process has been upheld."

During the past 10 days, every possible venue was explored to sort out the issue. Sources in the Italian government said ambassador Daniele Mancini even asked for an appointment with Congress president Sonia Gandhi - which was promptly refused. This, however, couldn't be verified independently by HT. 

The Congress president, instead, had struck a tough position on the issue on Tuesday, saying Italy's decision was "outright unacceptable". The PM had told Parliament there would be consequences for bilateral ties if the marines were not sent back.

As Italy finally obliged, one of the marines was reported as saying "to prevent anyone from saying that Italy does not keep his word, I have to go back to India".


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