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Death shield brings back Italian marines

New Delhi, March 22: The two Italian marines accused of killing two Kerala fishermen returned to India today after a “sovereign guarantee from the Government of India that (if convicted), the death penalty is not even envisaged in this case”, according to Italy’s deputy foreign minister who accompanied the soldiers to Delhi.

“The potential diplomatic crisis has been defused,” the minister, Staffan de Mistura, told a news conference this evening.

The guarantee was received by the Italian government yesterday afternoon. When it said that the Indian government “does not even envisage the death penalty in this case, that was enough for us”, de Mistura said.

He had met Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid just before the news conference.

The marines have been charged under Section 302, which carries the death penalty if a court concludes that a crime falls in “the rarest of the rare category”.

Earlier, addressing Parliament and a separate news conference, minister Khurshid had chosen the word “clarification”, not sovereign guarantee, and denied there was any deal.

“We clarified that the nature of the alleged incident, for which they will be put on trial, is such, and jurisprudence of our country is very clear on it, that in such a case, there would not be a death sentence. Because in the description that is being (given) of the rarest of the rare cases, there is no place. We clarified that,” Khurshid said.

“We didn’t say we will not give you this sentence. We said that our understanding is that this is not a case for rarest of the rare. We checked with the law officers... and we gave them (the clarification) only after the law officers” gave their opinion, he added.

“We clarified to them in writing that if the marines come back within the period that is given to them, they will be compliant with the SC order”. He said it was also clarified that there was no question of arresting the marines.

Khurshid, who was speaking before the Italians had landed in India, said he did not speak directly to anyone in the Italian establishment because “even an innocuous comment can be interpreted in a manner that can become self-serving”.

Italian minister de Mistura avoided answering the question whether the government could give a guarantee if the judiciary in India, as in Italy, was independent of the government.

“They (the marines) are liable to be judged in their own country as would the Indian side…. If they were Indian soldiers, you would have done the same,” he said.

Such assurances are not new. Gangster Abu Salem was deported from Portugal after India assured that country that he would not be tried for offences that carry the death penalty.

The Supreme Court had set today as the deadline for the marines to return after they were permitted to travel to Italy to vote in elections held last month.

Law minister Ashwani Kumar had told The Telegraph on Wednesday that the Italians could still retrieve the situation by sending the marines back by Friday.

Asked what was likely to happen on April 2, when the Supreme Court is scheduled to again take up the question of the marines keeping their word, attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati said: “Where is the question of any action? They have complied with the orders of the court, so nothing survives in the matter.”

De Mistura said his government was also looking at a dialogue on the issue of the death penalty, which has been abolished by many countries. Asked if he had a time frame in mind for the special court to dispose of the case, he said: “No. But I do have a wish… maybe a matter of months in view of this feeling of urgency in India and in Italy.

“According to Italian law, the death penalty is a very serious aspect. The Italian authorities by law would not have allowed them to go. The law regarding the death penalty is so strict that we had to obtain guarantees.”

The Indian side had guaranteed that a special court under the directions of the Supreme Court would “be set up fast and the case would be resolved speedily”.

The minister, who had the Italian ambassador, Daniele Mancini, by his side, said: “It was also the word of honour by our ambassador.”

The Supreme Court had permitted the marines to return against a promise by the ambassador that they would be flown back to India. But when Rome decided otherwise — till the guarantees — the Supreme Court forbade the ambassador from leaving the country.

That provoked authorities in Italy to question if India was respecting the Vienna Convention by impinging on the diplomatic immunity of the envoy. “That slippery slope has now been avoided,” the minister said.

The Italian minister also spoke of the consequences for India if Indian soldiers on counter-piracy duties were to be accused similarly. He said India and Italy had arrangements under which convicted prisoners could serve time in their own country.

De Mistura mentioned that the case had been going on for 14 months. Last year, he had met the families of the dead fishermen “and I was very sorry”.

“At the same time, we feel that our two marines were doing their duty and they and their families should also find the issue resolved quickly.… One of them has four minor children and another has older children,” he said.

The minister said the Italian government’s change of stance on returning the marines to India was not “orchestrated” but “remember, there is public opinion in Italy like you have public opinion in India”.

Asked if the Italian government would now seek permission for the marines to return to Italy for Easter (next week), he replied: “They have just arrived but thank you for the suggestion.”