Dispute Over Italian Marines Prompts Bickering in Indian Court, but No Resolution
By GARDINER HARRIS FEB. 3, 2014
NEW DELHI — With black-robed lawyers crammed into a courtroom, India’s Supreme Court refused on Monday to resolve a major international dispute that a top Italian diplomat warned could soon damage ties.
The case, a shooting involving two Italian marines, serves as a cautionary tale for the United States, a senior Indian diplomatic official said. Although Washington is not involved in the case, the long-running drama between Italy and India shows that such disagreements can sometimes fester for years, the Indian official said.
“These things are best addressed directly rather than being allowed to run their own course, as they can really drag on,” said the diplomat, who declined to be identified because of the delicacy of the matter.
Indian tax authorities are now investigating three American schools, in a further threat to relations that soured in December over the arrest in New York of an Indian diplomat on charges of committing visa fraud and making false statements in connection with her treatment of a domestic worker.
Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said in a telephone interview that the American authorities had still not answered India’s questions about whether teachers at American schools in India had appropriate visas.A State Department spokeswoman said on Monday: “Both U.S. and Indian officials have reaffirmed our shared goal to move forward on a broad range of bilateral and global issues to further expand our strategic partnership. Regarding Indian concerns, we take them very seriously and continue to address them via appropriate diplomatic channels.”
In the separate dispute between Italy and India, Italian diplomats said India could not allow the two-year quarrel over the conduct of two Italian marines to continue much longer.
“This case has not yet damaged relations between our countries,” said Staffan de Mistura, a special Italian envoy who flew here on Sunday. “But if there is not a quick and fair resolution soon, it is very likely to do that.”
The dispute began on Feb. 15, 2012, when the two marines, stationed on the merchant ship Enrica Lexie off the coast of Kerala State, fired on a fishing boat that the marines worried might be filled with pirates. The marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, said they had fired warning shots that did not strike the boat.
Hours later, a Kerala fishing boat returned to shore with two dead men, Ajesh Binki and Gelastine, who had just one name. The Enrica Lexie was brought to Kochi, a west coast Indian port, and Mr. Latorre and Mr. Girone were arrested.
The Italians contend that the marines have immunity from prosecution in India because the shooting took place in international waters and the marines were acting in an official capacity.
The Indians have contended that the marines can be prosecuted because the vessel was commercial and the shooting happened in a maritime zone where India has jurisdiction.
Last year, the dispute intensified after India allowed the marines to return home to vote in national elections in exchange for a promise that they would come back. When Italy announced that the marines would not return, outraged Indian officials alerted airport authorities to arrest the Italian ambassador in case he tried to leave.
After Indian diplomats promised that the marines would not face the death penalty, Italy sent the marines back last March.
The two have lived ever since in the Italian Embassy.
Last month, Indian newspapers reported that the marines might be charged with terrorism, a crime that carries a mandatory death sentence.
Mukul Rohatgi, the Indian lawyer representing Italy in the court session on Monday, said such a terrorism charge, if confirmed, would be “contrary to the sovereign assurance given by the government of India to the government of Italy”.
Mr. Rohatgi noted that the Supreme Court ordered more than a year ago that the marines be tried expeditiously by a special court.
But the government has yet to decide officially how to conduct such a trial or what charges the marines will face.
Mr. Rohatgi said of the marines, while the Indian government “sorts out this legal logjam in one week, two weeks, six months. We don’t care”.
Attorney General Goolam E. Vahanvati answered that the government was close to deciding how it intended to proceed against the marines. Mr. Vahanvati said the marines could not be allowed to leave India because they had previously threatened not to return.
The two prominent lawyers bickered loudly while Justice B. S. Chauhan held up his hands in an attempt to quiet them. Justice Chauhan gave the government one more week to decide how to proceed.
The killing of the fishermen is one of a growing number of encounters in recent years between fishing boats, pushed increasingly far from shore because of dwindling fish stocks, and merchant ships, sailing closer to shore because of a rising threat of piracy.
The fishermen’s deaths led to outrage in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, important states for India’s governing coalition in looming national elections.