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Marines’ relief

New Delhi, Feb. 24: The Centre today told the Supreme Court it had decided to drop anti-piracy charges against the two Italian marines that would have brought them the death penalty on conviction.

A three-judge bench will consider after two weeks whether the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which deals with crimes like terror, can continue with the marines probe or some other agency should do the job.

The court said this after Italy’s counsel argued that the NIA no longer had the jurisdiction to tackle the case once charges were dropped under the anti-piracy Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA).

A bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and J. Chelameshwar asked marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, accused of killing two Kerala fishermen in February 2012, and the Italian ambassador to file their response to the Centre’s decision.

The case has triggered a diplomatic row, with Rome protesting the anti-piracy charges and the delay in the trial. It recently recalled its ambassador to India. Latorre and Girone claim they mistook the fishermen for pirates.

Today, senior counsel Mukul Rohtagi, appearing for the Italians, said the NIA should be taken off the case as the agency was meant to probe terror-related offences, such as piracy, under the SUA.

The marines can now be prosecuted only under IPC sections on murder or attempt to murder and other offences under the law, Rohtagi said.

The court asked the Italians to file their responses to the revised charges within a week. The Centre will get a week after that to file its rejoinder, following which the matter will be heard further by the three-judge bench.

In earlier hearings, attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati had told the court that the decision to waive the SUA was taken after Union law minister Kapil Sibal concluded that charges under the stringent law were “not attracted” in the case.

“The law minister has recorded his opinion that provisions of the SUA are not attracted to this case. In the circumstances, appropriate steps will be taken to ensure that the chargesheet reflects this,” Vahanvati had said.