NEW DELHI: An increasingly desperate Italy appealed to the United Nations for help in freeing its marines from Indian custody while India believes Italy is unnecessarily dragging the case by raising procedural issues.¬†
News reports quoted Italy’s interior minister Angelino Alfano telling journalists before meeting UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in New York, “Italy is willing to try the marines at home, but in the meantime we ask for their freedom.”
His remarks coincide with yet another visit to India by Steffan de Mistura, the Italian pointperson for the case. Rome is pushing for the case to be tried in Italy where the marines will be held in custody, but India has insisted they should be tried under Indian law.
While India made no official response to Italy going to the UN, officials said it would have little effect, since such petitions are common. Italy has already asked the EU and NATO for help, which have issued statements asking for the case to be wound up. The pressure on India, sources said, was higher until the Supreme Court ruled that the marines could not be tried under the SUA Act (Suppression of Unlawful Activities at Sea) which mandates death penalty. In recent weeks, sources said, India and Italy are being asked to resolve this bilaterally.
However, emotions are running high in Italy on the issue, and the Indian embassy recently received a live bullet as a warning.
India, which had tied itself up in knots over the application of SUA Act to the case, finally decided that it would not be applied to the two marines. If they had been, it would not only have meant death penalty for the marines, it would have made vulnerable India’s own security forces fighting piracy in international waters.
But Italy, which got a favorable ruling on the SUA Act, has now questioned whether NIA is eligible to investigate the case. Indian officials connected with the case said Italy had not questioned this earlier. They pointed to the amount of time wasted when Italy dragged its feet on letting four witnesses be questioned last year. Officials said it appeared Italy was raising objections on procedural issues hoping to get the case dismissed on these grounds.
On the other hand, India has not covered itself with glory. From the initial handling of the case by former foreign minister S M Krishna to the internecine battle between the home and foreign ministries about how to proceed, it has not been India’s finer moment on either diplomacy or criminal investigation.
Initially, the reason for giving the case to the NIA was that the CBI was over-burdened. Since NIA is only tasked with investigating terror cases, the charge-sheet ended up with death penalty as a possibility, despite India promising to steer clear of death penalty. Later, foreign minister Salman Khurshid would blame former home secretary R K Singh for the mess on SUA. The death penalty has been removed, but now the marines face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, shot dead two fishermen off the Kerala coast in February 2012, apparently mistaking them for pirates. The Indian government allowed them to return to Italy for Christmas and even to vote in the elections. Following a small drama regarding their return, the marines have been kept in the Italian embassy in New Delhi awaiting trial.
In February, UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson Martin Nesirky told reporters that the secretary general was “concerned that this long-standing matter between Italy and India remains unresolved and is prompting tensions between two friendly and important member states of the organization”.