|Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini arrives at the ministry of external affairs in South Block on Tuesday. (PTI)
New Delhi, March 12: Italy’s refusal to send back the two marines facing trial for murder off the Kerala coast has left the government struggling for answers and nonplussed on recourse.
Under pressure to respond strongly to Italy’s “breach of promise”, it swore action, sought legal advice from top law officers, and summoned Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini to the foreign office to register its displeasure and disapproval. But it remained lost on what concrete measures it could take to remedy the unexpected breach by Italian authorities.
Two possible measures are the temporary recall of the Indian ambassador to Rome or declaring the Italian envoy persona non grata as a mark of protest. But it isn’t known whether these are even being considered.
New Delhi may well feel constrained from resorting to steps that would sour relations because it is currently seeking Italian help on uncovering kickback allegations in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal.
A statement issued by the ministry of external affairs, following ambassador Mancini’s meeting with foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, said: “It was conveyed to him that India expects (the) republic of Italy to fulfil the sovereign undertaking given by it to the Supreme Court of India. It was only following this undertaking that the Supreme Court allowed the two marines to travel to and remain in Italy for a period of four weeks and return to India under the care, supervision and control of the Italian Republic.
“It was conveyed to the Italian ambassador that the Italian government was obliged to ensure their return to India within the stipulated period as per the terms of the Supreme Court order.”
The two marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, had been allowed their second visit home in as many months by the Supreme Court on express guarantees furnished by the Italian ambassador that they would return to complete trial proceedings in a special court.
The marines, who had also been allowed four weeks at home over Christmas, are charged with shooting dead two Indian fishermen in the Arabian Sea in February 2012. They were on anti-piracy patrol and have pleaded they suspected the approaching fishermen to be pirates.
The Italian government has invoked the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas of 1982 to argue that the incident is a “matter of controversy” between Italy and India and sought a meeting at the diplomatic level to sort out differences.
In essence, Italy holds that the jurisdiction of Indian courts does not extend over its marines or the incident over high seas in which two Kerala fishermen were killed.
While the Italian request for such a meeting is being “examined” by the external affairs ministry, the government is firm on the return of the marines to face court proceedings.
“The government of India states firmly that it does not agree with the position conveyed by the Italian government on the return of the two marines to India,” the ministry statement said.
Dovetailed with the government’s position, solicitor-general Mohan Parasaram flayed the Italian refusal and held them to their undertaking to the Supreme Court. “Italy has to send the marines back to face trial in India,” Parasaram said.
In a snub, senior lawyer Harish Salve has decided he would no longer represent the Italian government or the marines.
Salve had pleaded the case for granting them permission to go home in February to enable them to vote in the national elections. Sources close to Salve said he felt “betrayed and embarrassed” by his clients’ decision to not honour their promise to the apex court.
The government is faced with more than just a diplomatic and legal impasse over the marines; Italy’s unexpected about-turn has also unleashed a political storm that could well get looped into larger controversies.
The BJP has been quick to seize on the “Italian connection” and begun to insinuate a “conspiracy”.
Party spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said: “What we want to know is why the government is being especially soft on Italians. What is the connection? Why were persons charged with murder allowed to go abroad again and again?”
In Kerala, on the other hand, the issue evoked bipartisan concern and competition.
Before chief minister Oommen Chandy could announce he was rushing to Delhi to discuss the matter with central leaders, a delegation of Left MPs called on the Prime Minister and protested not merely against the Italian decision but also the Supreme Court’s order giving the marines leave to go home.
“The Supreme Court will have to explain to the people why such permission was granted,” CPM leader Sitaram Yechury said.
He quoted the Prime Minister as telling the Left delegation that the Italian decision was “unacceptable” and that “strong action” will be taken, but added: “What that strong action can or would be we do not know; the Prime Minister did not tell us.”