Indian envoy in Rome summoned and told imprisonment of marines was not acceptable

With pressure mounting on the Italian government to secure the release of its two marines imprisoned in Kerala for allegedly killing two Indian fishermen, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti called up Prime Minister Manmohan and regretted the incident.

The two leaders, who will meet at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul later this month, agreed that the incident should be resolved in accordance with “law and in the spirit of friendship,” according to a late night release here.

Besides expressing “regret,” Mr. Monti, who a section of the Italian media says is facing his major foreign policy test with this incident, also “condoled” the incident. Officials said this was akin to a head of government apologising for the incident and said this would make things awkward for New Delhi, which claims that with the courts taking cognisance of the killings, it has little to say in the matter.

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi has already visited India, seeking the marines' release and summoned the Indian envoy in Rome on Tuesday to tell him that the imprisonment of the marines was not acceptable. With the media in Italy taking a stridently nationalist line, his deputy is camping in Kochi where the marines are imprisoned.

Indian officials say that as there are differences with Italy on which law — Indian or Italian — would prevail in prosecuting the marines, it would be best for the courts in Kerala to decide on the matter. Even otherwise, the Centre has little leverage in persuading the courts to decide one way or other.

The response came after Mr. Terzi conveyed to the Indian envoy Rome's annoyance with the continued detention of the two soldiers. The Monti government has been under pressure by the media and members of the previous Silvio Berlusconi government for initially taking a soft approach and then for not being able to persuade India to release them for trial under Italian law.

“Yes, our Ambassador in Rome did meet the Italian Foreign Minister, who explained what has been Italy's view publicly and consistently that India had no jurisdiction over the marines because they were performing a sovereign act and therefore entitled to immunity and also that they were on an Italian ship by an Act of [Italian] Parliament providing for vessel protection detachments (VPDs),” official sources said.

“But our view has also been pretty consistent as far as we see it. VPDs do not have global sanctity in terms of international laws. Indian laws are applicable [in this case] but we do understand Italy has difference of opinion. Now the case is in Indian courts, it is for them to decide,” they added, presenting the “two contrasting views,” only one of which has been highlighted in each country.

“Whatever the court decides in Kerala, we, as executive, will abide by that. We believe that our judiciary is free, fair and independent, and we await the outcome of the legal process in Kerala,” they said.

Official sources claimed the Italian government had never offered to pay money to the families of the victims in return for the release of the two marines. Besides, with a legal process under way, it was impossible for the Central government to push for an out-of-court settlement. “If anything has to be done, it will be by the courts in Kerala.”

In the demarche to the Indian envoy, Mr. Terzi also said Rome did not recognise the legitimacy of the legal case in India “due to the absence of jurisdiction.”

This story has been corrected for a factual error.

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