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Italy recalls envoy in marines protest

- Rome questions delays in murder trial, summons Indian ambassador

New Delhi, Feb. 18: Italy today recalled its ambassador here in protest against what it called “unacceptable” delays in court proceedings against two marines accused of killing Indian fishermen, escalating a two-year-old diplomatic spat that has inflamed domestic passions in both nations.

Rome also directly questioned India’s legal system for the first time, pointing to an adjournment by the Supreme Court today to claim it showed “evident Indian incapacity to manage the affair” — a statement that has left New Delhi fuming and has made a negotiated settlement harder.

Rome summoned Indian ambassador Basant Kumar Gupta to voice its “dismay” at the “unacceptable delay” in trying the marines. Gupta was told the case “shows an Indian desire to draw out the affair beyond all limits”, Italian news agency ANSA reported.

The apex court had put off till Monday a hearing in the case and asked the Centre to give in writing the law ministry’s opinion on withdrawing certain provisions of the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation Act (SUA) against the marines.

“We will hear it on Monday at 2pm,” a bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and Ibrahim Kalifullah told attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati, who had sought time to reply.

The area of contention pertains to 3(1)(g) and 3(1)(a) of the SUA which entail the death penalty and prosecution for piracy.

Italy has been arguing before the apex court that it had returned the marines to India for trial only on the assurance of the external affairs ministry that they would not be prosecuted for any offence that carried the death penalty.

“The main objective for Italy remains that of allowing the return as soon as possible of the two marines to their home country,” the Italian foreign office said in a statement attributed by the embassy here to foreign minister Emma Bonino and aimed at explaining the recall of Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini.

Italian officials here did not clarify the duration of the recall. But the recall of an ambassador is a signal used by nations in drastic circumstances to point to a breakdown in diplomatic relations, and Mancini, Italian officials said, will only return to India when a resolution to the standoff appears imminent.

Marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone are accused of shooting dead two Indian fishermen on February 15, 2012, off the Kerala coast.

The case against them immediately assumed political overtones both in India and Italy.

When Rome refused to make the marines return to India after the Supreme Court allowed them to go back home briefly in 2013, the two nations almost snapped diplomatic ties before Italy buckled.

But the latest escalation in tension involves the imposition of two crucial sections of India’s anti-piracy law against the marines. These sections, imposed by the NIA against the marines, involve the possibility of a death sentence or a 10-year jail term.

But the ministry of external affairs had given Italy a sovereign assurance that Latorre and Girone would not face the death penalty in India. The foreign office has opposed the imposition of charges under the anti-piracy law, and the home ministry has now also agreed. But today, the government told the apex court it needed a few more days to seek the law ministry’s views before revoking the piracy charges against the marines.

“We think this is just delaying tactics,” an Italian diplomat said.

But the Italian foreign office statement questioning India’s judicial system has made it harder for New Delhi to negotiate, because any concession could be seen as acceptance of Rome’s allegation, officials said.

“In diplomacy, you can argue over matters of jurisdiction, you can negotiate a settlement, but you simply cannot question another democracy’s institutions,” an Indian official said.