Two years after two Italian Marines were arrested for shooting two Indian fishermen in Indian waters, the trial is yet to begin and the only new development in the case is that¬†on Monday¬†(February 24), the Government of India decided to drop anti-piracy charges against the accused, giving rise to apprehensions that the case is being weakened due to incompetence or complicity of the Congress-dominated UPA.
This is not to argue that the duo deserved death penalty for manslaughter; but the inability to prosecute and conclude a cut-and-dried case raises doubts about the regime‚Äôs intentions. The Indian vessel was engaged in tuna fishing within the Laccadive Sea between the Lakshadweep archipelago and the Malabar Coast, the Indian Contiguous Zone, when tragedy struck on February 15, 2012; Ajesh Binki of Tamil Nadu and Valentine aka Gelastine of Kerala were shot dead, ostensibly mistaken for pirates. Their families are still waiting for justice.
Even if one accepts the claim of the Italian Navy Vessel Protection Detachment on board, the oil tanker MV Enrica Lexie that the killings were accidental, the fact remains that the vessel had no authority to shoot anyone in Indian waters. To this date, Rome has not explained why the Italian ship, which was sailing from Singapore to Egypt, was so close to the Indian shoreline when it should have been on the open ocean.
Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone were twice given generous parole to fly to Italy for Christmas in December 2012 (two weeks) and again in 2013 (four weeks to vote in the elections!). On the latter occasion, they decided not to return to India and were backed by the transitional Government in Italy. This embarrassed the Supreme Court of India which had granted bail without even a bank guarantee, and the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi as it immediately raised the spectre of the easy escape of Bofors kickbacks accused Ottavio Quattrocchi from India and later Argentina where he was detained on the basis of an Interpol Red Corner notice, and the subsequent de-freezing of his bank accounts in London. The Congress president was forced to publicly signal her home country to return the men to India, after which they were granted bail and live in the comfort of the Italian embassy in New Delhi.
In a further humiliation of the UPA, the Italian Premier Matteo Renzi openly exulted that the decision to drop the anti-piracy law was the ‚Äúfruit of Italian firmness‚Äù, as invocation of the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Safety of Maritime Navigation and Fixed Platforms on Continental Shelf Act (SUA) amounted to Italy being a terrorist State. He said Italy would press to have the case assessed by international bodies. Italy has already petitioned the UN over the trial of the Marines under the anti-piracy law, but UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the matter should be resolved bilaterally. The new Italian stand it at variance with Rome‚Äôs previous acceptance of Indian jurisdiction when it sought parole for Christmas 2012, whereby it waived Italian jurisdiction under Article 92 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In fairness, Italian angst at the inexplicable and unjustified delay in trying the case is justified; last week Rome recalled its envoy to New Delhi in protest at the failure to even file charges against the two naval personnel. The delay has encouraged Rome to demand that the Marines be tried in Italy on grounds that the incident took place in international waters. The European Parliament has expectedly chipped in on the side of Italy with Speaker Martin Schulz urging India to respect international law in the case; the European Union and NATO insist that the case could have implications on the global fight against piracy.
The undue delay in filing charges has encouraged Rome to shift the goalposts and deny well known facts of the case. MV Enrica Lexie was moving through Indian Customs Waters and under the Ministry of Shipping guidelines of August 2011, all Indian and Foreign commercial merchant vessels with armed guards and military weapons must obtain a Pre-Arrival Notification for Security (PANS) clearance before entering and transiting through the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or the Indian Search and Rescue Region (ISRR). This was not done by the Italian vessel.
After the Indian Coast Guard intercepted the Enrica Lexie, forensic analysis proved that fragments from the bodies of the fishermen matched the ammunition and ballistic fingerprints of the automatic rifles issued to the Italian team. As the Indian fishermen were not armed, it was only natural that the fishermen community as a whole would feel outraged when Rome tried to depict the incident as an encounter with Somali pirates.
The fact, as the Indian Coast Guard asserted, is that Indian waters are fishing waters and there has been no incident of piracy here for decades. Moreover, it is accepted procedure to report piracy events or suspicious activities immediately to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), but Enrica Lexie merely continued sailing towards Egypt. The incident was admitted only when the Coast Guard contacted the ship nearly three hours after the incident, and directed it to report at Kochi, Kerala.
In the initial hearing in the Kerala High Court, Justice PS Gopinathan had observed that the Italian authorities had been unable to furnish any record to show that the Marines, before shooting the fishermen, had informed the Captain of any piracy threat to the ship or that the Captain had recorded the same. Nor could they prove that the Master had activated the Ship Alert Security System or sent any signal to the MRCC, Mercury chart or to any Navies across the world.
Now, with Rome pressing the Supreme Court to allow the Marines to return home till the charges are filed, or the try the case in Italy, apprehensions are being expressed in India that the UPA coalition is lukewarm to the idea of trying men from the natal country of its chairperson. Another view is that the UPA has deliberately mishandled the issue and escalated tensions with Rome to make it difficult for Indian investigators to get cooperation in the Agusta Westland helicopter bribery scandal in which a key middleman has directly named Congress president Sonia Gandhi as the ‚Äòdriving force‚Äô behind the deal.
While it would be premature to come to a conclusion, there is no denying that despite a clear directive from the Supreme Court on January 18, 2013, the Union Government has failed to set up a special court to try the Marines. For the families of the two murdered fishermen, it is still ground zero.