The Centre tied itself in knots on Friday, telling the Supreme Court that India had no jurisdiction to detain an Italian ship involved in the shooting deaths of two Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala, only to clarify several hours later that the senior legal official who made this dramatic claim on its behalf had given his personal opinion.
Additional Solicitor-General Harin Raval submitted before a Bench of Justices R.M. Lodha and H.L. Gokhale that the Italy-flagged tanker, Enrica Lexie, was not in Indian waters when the shooting incident occurred.
Echoing legal arguments made by the Italian government — which wants the two marines now facing serious charges in a Kerala court repatriated to face trial back home — he said the ship was in international waters 20.5 nautical miles off the Indian coast whereas India's territorial jurisdiction extended only up to 12 nautical miles. The ASG's assertion directly contradicts statements by high officials in Kerala as well as the Ministry of External Affairs, which rejected Rome's claim that an Indian court had no right to try its marines for the shooting.
“Are you saying that Kerala police have no jurisdiction to probe?,” the Bench asked the ASG. “It is very unfortunate and it can't be acceptable. How can you take such a stand, when two Indian citizens have been killed?” it said. The ASG insisted this was the Centre's stand. The Bench then indicated that the detained ship be allowed to leave India after it imposed certain conditions.
Later in the day, however, the Ministry of Shipping issued a press release claiming that Mr. Raval had spoken without the Central government's consent when he said the Kerala police had no jurisdiction to detain the Italian ship. “The Central government has not filed any affidavit in the matter,” it stated, “nor any such instructions were given to the government counsel.” “There is no difference of opinion between the Centre and the State government.”
South Block officials told The Hindu that the Shipping Ministry issued its clarification after the MEA protested the stand taken by the ASG in court. Mr. Raval was not immediately available for comment.
On April 10, the Supreme Court had issued notice to the Centre, the Kerala Police, Cochin Port Trust and others on a special leave petition from the owners of Enrica Lexie challenging a Kerala High Court order refusing to allow the ship to leave port.
When counsel for Kerala said the ship should not be allowed to proceed, the court wondered whether the property from where the offence was committed could be attached when it was not involved in the commission of the offence.
The Bench, while adjourning the hearing to April 30, directed that fresh notice be issued to the wife of one of the victims in the shooting incident.
Earlier, the Kerala High Court had directed the State police to allow the ship to leave India on its furnishing a bond for Rs. 3 crore and giving an undertaking before the Deputy Conservator, Cochin Port Trust, that the vessel, master, and crew would be produced as and when required by the authorities concerned. However, a Division Bench stayed that order acting on appeals filed by a legal heir of one of the killed fishermen.
The ship's owners contended that the High Court ought not to have entertained a writ petition as it was not maintainable. It said the two persons responsible for the death of the fishermen were arrested and the firearms used were also seized from the ship. The forensic report had clearly stated that the ship was not involved in any way in the incident. Since the vessel was carrying over one lakh tonnes of oil, its detention was causing a loss of about Rs. 200 crore. The SLP sought quashing of the impugned order and an interim stay of its operation.