Fishermen killing: India furious over Italy’s U-turn, will ‘ensure’ Marines return

Italy, better known in India for being the birthplace of the ruling coalition chair Sonia Gandhi and its doddering economy, has triggered an uproar in India by going back on its word on returning the two Italian Marines, accused of killing two Indian fishermen over a year ago.

The dramatic U-turn by the Italian government has come as a shock to New Delhi, which had in good faith agreed to let the two Marines go home to vote in the Italian elections provided they came  back to India to face trial.

Massimiliano Lattore and Salvatore Girone, the marines on board Italian ship Enrica Lexie, allegedly shot dead the two fishermen off the coast of Kerala in February last year, mistaking them for pirates.

India predictably talked tough, and made it clear Italy did not have a choice in the matter. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India will do “whatever needs to be done” to ensure the marines returned.”

The mild-mannered Indian prime minister’s straight talk belied anger seething in the Indian establishment over what is seen as Italy’s betrayal, an issue a belligerent opposition was quick to latch on to embarrass the ruling coalition.

South Block, home of India’s foreign office, was in for a surprise March 11 when a note from the Italian foreign ministry informed New Delhi curtly that the two naval guards will not return and accused the Indian authorities of violating international rights by detaining them. Rome upped the ante by saying it was “open” to let an international arbitrator to assess the case.

In the note verbale, Italy had informed that “since a controversy between the two states has been established, the two Italian naval guards, Latorre and Girone, will not return to India on the expiration of the permission granted to them.”

On March 12, India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai summoned Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini to convey India’s position on this issue in the “strongest of terms.”

“I summoned the Italian ambassador to my office. Basically, what I told him is that the content of the note which was given to us conveying the position of the government of Italy regarding the two naval guards is not acceptable to us,” Mathai said

“There was an offer of discussions which has been made in a note from the Italians on March 6 that is a separate from the assurance given to the Supreme Court,” said Mathai.

Mathai, however, made it clear that Italy is obliged to ensure that the marines return to India in the time frame given by the Supreme Court.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid assured an aggressive opposition that the government would respond appropriately to a letter from the Italian government and asserted that the marines would return to India. “We are studying the implications of the position taken by Italy. We will take an informed decision after examining the communication from Italy,” Khurshid said.

India’s chief opposition Bharatiya Janata Party was not convinced. “This is a betrayal by the Italian government,” said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a spokesman of the BJP. “It is a breach of trust between two sovereign nations and the act is completely unacceptable.” Rudy asked the government to make every effort to bring the marines back to face “trial under Indian laws and in Indian courts”.

The Italian envoy chose not to speak to the media.

In February, the Supreme Court had allowed the marines – Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone – to fly to Italy to vote in the Feb 24-25 national election. The top court was given an explicit undertaking that the marines will return in four weeks to face legal proceedings in India. In an act of goodwill, India had earlier allowed the marines to go home for Christmas holidays after which they returned back to India on expiry of their leave.


–India Writes Network


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