Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre (right) and Salvatore Girone in Kochi, Kerala, on Friday. (PTI)
Jan. 4: Unlike their western neighbours 14 years ago, the Italians did not take French leave — and many in India are blinking and tweeting their disbelief.
Two Italian marines accused of murdering two fishermen off the Kerala coast returned to the state today to face trial, belying claims that they would stay put in Europe after celebrating Christmas with their families and keep out of the reach of the Indian judiciary.
So surprised were some that they wondered why the marines came back. They tweeted reasons ranging from the humorous (addiction to Malayali non-vegetarian cuisine) to the mischievous (“what’s with our soil that we attract Italians who never want to leave?”).
But some did take back the outrage they had expressed when the Italians flew out and at least one tweeter conceded that the Italians had shown more respect for the country’s laws than any Indian politician.
Experts in social sciences traced the expressions of surprise to the contrast between the Italians’ action and trends in India where suspects seek to evade even questioning.
“You can call it a dominance of distrust,” said Atashee Chatterjee, associate professor of philosophy at Jadavpur University and a specialist in ethics. “We don’t see ourselves as trustworthy, and we don’t trust others,” she said, attributing it to an erosion of value systems.
To add insult to the injury of countless undertrials jumping bail in India, the Italians came back nearly a week before the January 10 deadline set by Kerala High Court. The court had allowed the marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, to travel abroad to celebrate Christmas with their families after furnishing a bond of Rs 6 crore. They left India on December 22.
The two Kerala fishermen, Jelestine Valentine and Ajesh Binki, were killed when the marines, part of the security team guarding the Italian cargo vessel Enrica Lexie, opened fire on February 15 last year. The marines have said they mistook the fishing boat for a pirate vessel.
The Kerala government, stung by a backlash that insinuated the Vatican had tried to influence ministers to ensure leniency towards the marines, had vehemently opposed the bail. The innuendoes had touched a raw nerve in the Congress-led state government because one of the key partners in the coalition is a regional party that derives its strength from a section of Christians.
The director-general of prosecution, T. Asaf Ali, had drawn the court’s attention to a French espionage case in which a court allowed the accused to go back to their country in 1998. Ali said they did not return despite a specific undertaking given by the French government.
The state told the court that the Italian aim was to “smuggle” the accused out of India under the pretext of celebrating Christmas.
The Opposition CPM’s youth wing, the DYFI, had joined the chorus against letting the Italians leave the country.
However, this morning at 7.50, a special flight carrying Latorre and Girone touched down at the Kochi international airport and the two reported before the city’s police commissioner. Accompanied by the Italian consul-general Giampaolo Cutillo, the duo then drove to Kollam district in the south, where the case against them will be heard.
The accused surrendered their passports, after which the trial court returned the personal bond of Rs 6 crore. The court also asked them to appear before it next on January 15. The marines are staying in a hotel in Kochi as the bail conditions require them to be present within the city limits.
Cutillo told television channels that the Italian authorities had kept their word. “I’m sure that the people of India, the people of Kerala will appreciate the importance of this gesture,” he said.
Sources said the marines returned in accordance with legal advice that an early return might work favourably during the trial.
G. Parthasarathy, the former Indian high commissioner to Islamabad, said the two Italians’ early return was exemplary as it has a message for Indians. “I think they want to show us that they honour Indian laws and procedures but that the act was committed outside Indian territorial waters and in international waters where Indian laws aren’t applicable,” he said.
External affairs ministry officials they were not surprised by the return, citing the principle of pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept) that India and Italy have committed to.
Ronen Sen, the former Indian ambassador to the US, said the presumption that there was something fishy in the decision to allow the two to go back to Italy smacked of a “colonial-era hangover”.
“We have a colonial-era hangover which presumes that our government or officials have succumbed to external pressures. The world has changed. India has changed,” Sen said.
“We need to take into account that the Italian government has acted in good faith. We should also recognise that the case involving the two marines is not an open-and-shut case. There are many dimensions to it and we should take all factors into account,” he added.
Kerala DYFI president M. Swaraj said this evening: “Our concern was not limited to just whether they would return or not. Italy maintains secrecy about foreign prisoners in their jails. So, we wanted our country too to be careful while dealing with Italian prisoners here.”
The departure of Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman linked to the Bofors controversy, and the flight of Union Carbide boss Warren Anderson despite giving an undertaking that he would return are instances that are yet to fade from public memory.
Foreigners are not alone to blame. According to Sunil Gupta, the law officer of Tihar jail, around 30 per cent of the undertrials facing serious charges jump bail. “After jumping bail, they change their addresses. Some of them also flee the country and continue to remain incognito. The police fail to trace them,” he said.
A senior Mumbai police officer said that in 2010, over 15,000 people jumped bail in the city and are untraceable while around 3,800 had done so in the rest of Maharashtra.
The tweets suggested that not many expected the Italians to be back. “Amazing they did. Not sure I would,” said a tweet. Another drew a parallel with Khuda Gawah, the movie in which Amitabh Bachchan playing a Pathan returns to India from Afghanistan to complete his jail term.
Some believe the marines’ return also reflects a respect for the law and acceptance of individual responsibility.
“What we often see here are efforts to belittle the authority of the law. Their (the Italians’) actions reflect respect and acceptance of the law,” said Girishwar Misra, a senior psychologist and specialist in human motivation and behaviour at the University of Delhi.
“In cultures perceived as individualistic,” Misra said, “we’re likely to see individuals taking responsibility for their actions rather than evading responsibility.”