By R. Prasannan
India made Italy eat humble pie last year when its two marines, accused of murdering two Indian fishermen, tried to jump bail. Its ambassador was forced to bring the marines back for trial under Indian laws which were hailed as humane and civilised. India offered to try them fast, and not hang them. The European Union, which had tried to intervene, was nudged to play ball in the interest of a free trade agreement which was in the works.
The shoe is now on the other foot, thanks to a mess created by the foreign, home and law and justice ministries. Two years after the arrest, not even a charge-sheet has been filed. Now, after the marines prayed to the court that they be either tried or let go, the home ministry directed that they be tried under the Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, a law that is used for trying pirates and sea terrorists in which the punishment for murder at sea is death. Europe is crying foul, saying India is going back on its own word‚Äînot to try them under any law that would entail death penalty.
The marines were arrested in February 2012 after a dramatic sea chase off the Kerala coast. After a charge-sheet was filed in a Kerala court, the Supreme Court found a jurisdictional lacuna and directed the Centre to set up a fasttrack court, and a Central agency to prosecute. Eyebrows were raised when the home ministry designated the National Investigation Agency, which had been created to probe cases of terror and those involving foreign relations.
The move to invoke SUA has put Italy in a fix. Italy says, the marines were performing a sovereign duty, having been designated by its government to guard an oil tanker from pirates. If members of its armed force, performing sovereign task, are to be charged under terrorism and piracy laws, it “would be tantamount to the Republic of Italy being termed a terrorist state,” said a European diplomat.
Not just Italy, but the entire Europe is outraged. “Capital punishment is out of the question,” EU ambassador Joao Cravinho told THE WEEK. “The Government of India has made a public commitment. We take that word.”
European diplomats point out that death penalty, even for terrorists, is banned across Europe. They also remind that India had honoured a similar commitment made to Portugal when it got its own citizen Abu Salem, who was accused in the Mumbai terror attacks of 1993, extradited from Portugal.
Europe’s argument is that they have been cooperating with India on fighting terrorism, piracy and cyber-threats. In fact, just around the time when the home ministry asked NIA to charge the marines under SUA, French battleship FS Siroco, operating under the EU’s Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) flag, chased a pirate dhow and rescued 11 Indian crew and nabbed five Somali pirates. “We showed once more that there will be no safe haven for piracy in the area as long as Counter Piracy Forces remain fully dedicated to their task,” read a message from EU NAVFOR Force Commander, Rear Admiral Herve Blejean. “Thanks to an exceptionally effective international cooperation.” The hint was very clear. India and EU are partners in anti-piracy effort.
India’s friends in the EU are embarrassed. The EU’s foreign minister Catherine Ashton, a friend of India, is now said to be backing Italy. Ashton had visited India last year “to ensure that India-EU relations could be carried forward unaffected,” as was put out then, but now “she [Ashton] agrees with our position and our request,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Emma Bonino has claimed.
At stake is the free trade agreement that India and the EU have been negotiating for years. The 28-member EU is India’s largest trading partner‚Äîbilateral trade was worth 75.8 billion euros in 2012. European Council Vice-President Antonio Tajani says, “Europe cannot conduct free trade with a country that adopts an anti-piracy law that calls for death penalty.”
A chastened home ministry has advised the NIA to wait till the court decides on the marines’ petition. The blame is put on Italy which refused to allow witnesses, who were on the ship, to be questioned in India, delaying the charge-sheet. They were video-questioned.
The government has also found a fall guy‚Äîformer home secretary R.K. Singh, now in the BJP and accusing Home Minister S.K. Shinde of corruption and ineptitude. Singh, says Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, was the one who asked NIA to probe the case.