Former Navy chief Admiral (retd) Sureesh Mehta on Wednesday termed ‘unfortunate’ the decision of the Italian government not to return the marines to India to face trial in the Enrica Lexie shooting case.

“I cannot pontificate on whether they [the Italians] will bring them [the marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen] back, but the government should continue to put pressure on the Italians,” he said on the sidelines of a seminar on ‘marine security, power projection, industry, commerce and economics’ jointly organised by the National Maritime Foundation, Navy Foundation’s Kerala chapter and the Kerala Management Association.

Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Mehta said even if the firing happened in international waters, as claimed by the Italians, “it is still within our exclusive economic zone where only we have the right to exploit the resources”. He said that the fishermen who fell victim to the marines’ bullets were engaged in the legitimate activity of fishing. “So it happened in our jurisdiction, going by the UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]… The Italians, however, have maintained that they do not want the accused to be tried under the Indian law,” he said.

Vice-Admiral (retd) K.N. Sushil, who was heading the Kochi-based Southern Naval Command when the incident took place, was categorical in stating that it was a clear case of breach of trust on the part of the Italian government. “Clearly, the Italian government has gone back on its words. We should now put diplomatic pressure on the Italians and ask their Ambassador to leave the country,” he said.

On the merits of the case against the Italian marines, Mr. Sushil observed that the crux of the issue was being given a go-by in the hullabaloo over jurisdiction. “Ideally, the fact that they didn’t perform the fundamental evasive manoeuvres as stipulated in the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) guidelines before restoring to firing is enough to establish their culpability. See, the best way to find out if someone is chasing you is to turn away.

And, it is easy to establish whether they performed all that by verifying their log book, GPS and navigation charts,” he told The Hindu.

“What if the fishermen had sent out a distress alert to a naval or coast guard vessel nearby when it happened? Wouldn’t it have resulted in a stand-off between our military and the marines aboard the merchant vessel?” he asked.

Maritime strategist Rear Admiral (retd) Raja Menon, however, sought to downplay the development saying the relationship between India and Italy was significantly layered to have been derailed by the firing episode. “For instance, Italian firm Fincantieri is supporting us in the construction of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier [in Cochin Shipyard]. Let’s hope that they [the marines] are done justice in Italy,” he said.

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