|A protester shouts slogans in Thiruvananthapuram during a demonstration on Wednesday by fisherfolk against the Italians’ flight. The two Indians killed by the Italian marines were fishermen from Kerala. (AFP)
New Delhi, March 13: The Italian somersault on their undertrial marines has landed India on a diplomatic tightrope.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s unqualified warning on “consequences” today notwithstanding, India remains at a loss on what it can do to force the Italian hand and secure the marines back to face trial.
New Delhi is mulling downscaling diplomatic ties with Italy should it stick to its decision not to present its marines to face trial for murder, as it had promised the Supreme Court.
But it isn’t yet clear what the contours of Indian action may be; scrapping the accreditation of Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini and recalling the Indian envoy to Rome could be part of it.
Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai indicated the government hadn’t come to a decision on its response.
“At the moment we have made it clear to them that their stand is unacceptable to us. We are waiting for their response, once we have it, we shall think of future steps.”
But with the two marines — Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre — already back in Italy, New Delhi may have lost critical leverage.
“We can bring all sorts of pressure, including working through other European partners, but that may not be good enough,” an official conceded. “We do not have physical custody of the marines, it is, therefore, that much more difficult to put pressure.”
Although it is an entirely different issue, concerns over Italian co-operation in the AgustaWestland chopper kickback allegations could also be playing on decision-makers in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the external affairs ministry.
Pressure is building from the Opposition and within sections of the government to apply the law on ambassador Mancini for recanting on the pledge he took before the Supreme Court on the basis of which the marines were allowed a short-term return to Italy.
Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, argued that provisions of the Vienna Convention “cannot override the Constitution of India” and sought action for what he called “state-sponsored deception”.
Sources said the Union home ministry too had conveyed to the external affairs ministry that it “need not feel restricted” by norms of diplomatic immunity in this case.
The argument is that Italian authorities had invoked Indian legal provisions and courts in order to obtain leave for the marines and, therefore, their actions should come under their purview.
The marines were to return to India by March 22, following a four-week sojourn at home allowed them by the Supreme Court so they could vote in national elections. The Italian government turned turtle on its pledge to get them back, claiming their case was a matter of diplomatic dispute and came under the jurisdiction of international laws.
Unfazed by outcry over going back on his written undertaking to the Supreme Court, ambassador Mancini iterated today that Italy would like to discuss the issue with India at a “diplomatic level” rather than submit the marines for trial by a special court in Delhi.
“There are issues between the government of India and Italy and we have asked for negotiations at the diplomatic level. We believe international sea laws should apply in this case,” Mancini said.
The government has strongly disputed the Italian position and held it to the written undertaking it gave the Supreme Court while seeking permission for the marines to go home. This was spelt out at the highest level today when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Houses of Parliament: “…These actions of the government of Italy are not acceptable. They violate every rule of diplomatic discourse and call into question solemn commitments given by accredited representatives of a sovereign government to our Supreme Court.”
Responding to demands for action from agitated members across the political spectrum, the Prime Minister said: “Our government has insisted that the Italian authorities respect the undertakings they have given and return the two accused persons to stand trial in India. If they do not keep their word, there will be consequences for our relations with Italy.”
Outrage against the Italian government’s about-turn resonated in both Houses and across the floor. Members flayed the “Italian betrayal” and demanded that the government take stern measures to ensure the marines are brought back to face trial.
Many prominent members questioned why they had been allowed to go home in the first place.
“What was the reason they were allowed to go for Christmas?” asked the BJP’s Jaswant Singh, referring to an earlier leave of absence granted to the marines by Kerala High Court. “Do we allow our own undertrials to go home for Diwali? Was this done because they are Italians?”
Although they did not say so in as many words, BJP leaders have not been beyond insinuating Sonia Gandhi link to the Italian marines being extended “special and soft treatment”.
In the Rajya Sabha, the indignation was spearheaded by leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley who said: “The nation has been deceived, the Supreme Court has been deceived. This is outright fraud committed by a sovereign nation, which is said to believe in the rule of law. We have heard of state-sponsored terrorism, this amounts to state-sponsored deception and abduction.”
Questioning the wisdom of allowing the undertrial marines to return to Italy, Jaitley verily argued that the government move against the Italian ambassador. “I doubt seriously whether the ambassador is entitled to diplomatic immunity. The Vienna Convention cannot override the Constitution of India,” he said.