Date: 12/03/2013

Indian conspiracy behind Italy’s refusal of marines’ return?

by Venky Vembu Mar 12, 2013.

There is an air of a conspiracy that surrounds the Italian government’s decision – conveyed peremptorily to the Indian government late on Monday – that the two Italian marines accused of killing of two fishermen from Kerala off the Indian coast last year would not return to face trial before the Supreme Court of India.

The two marines – Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone – had secured the court’s permission to travel to Italy to vote in the general election there; they had similarly been given permission to travel to Italy to be with their families for Christmas, and had returned to face trial. But this time around, the newly elected Italian government has declared that the marines will not return.
A statement issued by the Italian Foreign Ministry noted on Monday that Rome had “informed the Indian government that, given the formal initiation of an international dispute between the two states, the marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone will not return to India at the end of their home leave.”

Italy’s decision not to allow the two Marines to return to face trial reeks of a backroom deal. PTI
The two marines, who were part of a military security team that was protecting the Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexia, claim they mistook the two fishermen for pirates and had opened fire. The fact that the shooting happened so close to India’s coastline, where there is no high risk of piracy, pointed to the trigger-happy nature of the Italian Marines’ response – or at the very least to a failure to abide by marine protocol of firing warning shots.

The Italian government said it had requested the Indian government to find a diplomatic solution to the case, but that it had been spurned. It said it was dishonouring the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling in January – that India had jurisdiction to try the marines – because, in its estimation, the shooting took place in international waters. It was therefore taking the dispute over jurisdiction to an international court or for arbitration, to secure an interpretation of a clause in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Italy’s claim is utter nonsense, as Firstpost has argued in the past (here and here).
The Italian government’s decision has severely damaged its international credibility, but it is difficult to escape the conspiratorial conclusion that the UPA government has, through its acts of omission and commission, created the circumstances for such an outcome. Right from the first day, it became clear that the case was as much a geopolitical issue as it was a legal issue. The Italian government brought enormous pressure to bear on the Indian government to find a diplomatic solution, rather than a legal one.

Perhaps because the UPA government did not want to be seen to be striking deals with the Italian government – which is something of a soft spot given UPA chairman Sonia Gandhi‘s Italian origins – the Indian foreign policy establishment pushed back at that time. The UPA government was also under pressure from the Congress-led government in Kerala, where emotions over the killing of the two fisherman ran high.

In any case, the record of how the UPA government moved heaven and earth to allow Ottavio Quattrocchi, Italian middleman in the Bofors deal and a close associate of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, to flee from India to escape imminent arrest and bury that case, was an unhappy precedent.
Even so, although the case relating to the Italian marines was before the judiciary, the Central government was seen to be dragging its feet on taking the case forward. Indicatively, although the Supreme Court had transferred the case to the Centre on 18 January and had ordered the establishment of a special court, the Centre had been laggardly in its response. As this report points out, three Ministries – Home Ministry, Law Ministry and the External Affairs Ministry – were citing legal minutiae to delay the implementation of the court order. Even as late as in the last week of February, more than a month after the Supreme Court ruling, the Law Ministry was preoccupied rather more with securing documents for the marines to travel to Italy rather than with implementing the court ruling.

Since any case is only as good as the prosecution, the suspicion that a backroom deal of sorts was being worked out with between the two governments ran high.
Particularly after the initiation of a trial in Italy into allegations that the AgustaWestland helicopter deal with India was secured by paying bribes and commissions to middlemen, including armed services officers and politicians, the situation was ripe for just such a backroom deal.
In fact, Firstpost had noted earlier (here) that as part of an effort to sabotage or at least contain the investigation into the AgustaWestland deal, it was entirely plausible that political pressure would be brought to bear on the trial of the Italian marines. This writer had argued then that such a course would have given the Indian government, which was manifestly uninterested in getting to the bottom of the Agusta Westland deal and was profoundly embarrassed by the ongoing trial in Italy, to gain political goodwill with the Italian government in the AgustaWestland investigation.

At that time, it was merely a hint of a conspiracy, but the Italian government’s brazen action appears to validate those suspicions.
The Indian government is on stern test today: it will be judged by its response to Italy’s seemingly unilateral action. Unless it responds with vigour, even risking a diplomatic standoff with Italy, the suspicion that this is part of a “political deal” to sabotage two trials – of the Italian marines in India and of the AgustaWestland deal in Italy – will only be validated.