Italy reneging on promise unacceptable, says Manmohan

Taken by surprise by the Italian refusal late on Monday night to send back the two marines, facing trial for killing two Indian fishermen off Kerala, India set in motion the process to regain lost ground by summoning its envoy and telling him that Rome must stand by its commitment to send the duo within four weeks to stand trial here.

India tried to hold Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini by his undertaking to the Supreme Court that allowed the two marines to leave for their country to cast votes in the February 24-25 general elections.

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told Mr. Mancini that the Italian government was “obliged to ensure their return.” This means India feels there is a window of about 10 days during which Italy can turn things around because the marines were let off on February 22.

This interaction at the diplomatic level in the evening was preceded by political activity with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telling a delegation of parliamentarians from Kerala that Italy reneging on its promise to the Supreme Court of ensuring the return of the marines was “unacceptable.”

Dr. Singh’s previous use of the term “unacceptable” — following the beheading of an Indian soldier on the Line of Control (LoC) — has led to a virtual freeze of high-level dialogue with Pakistan and impacted initiatives to loosen restrictions on trade and people-to-people exchanges.

External Affairs Ministry officials contested Italy’s contention that it was not going to let the marines return because Rome had decided to raise a bilateral dispute on facts, procedures and processes of the case.

Silent on request

But it also emerges that India kept quiet on an Italian government request sent almost a week ago to set up a meeting at the diplomatic level to amicably resolve the controversy. Even as India was sitting on this letter, Italy pulled the rug from under its feet by declaring that it was voiding its commitment to the Supreme Court in the absence of a reply.

Offer of talks

The Foreign Office contends that the offer of talks could not be mixed up with the commitments given by the Italians to the court. Mr. Mancini promised the court that the two accused would be “kept under its [Italian government] constant custody, supervision and control in Italy during this [four-week] period” and this assurance was buttressed by an affidavit of undertaking.

“As far as we are concerned, Italy is obliged to ensure that the two marines returned in the time frame given by the Supreme Court. Basically that is the position I took at the meeting I had when I summoned the Ambassador of Italy a little while ago,” Mr. Mathai told journalists.

Asked whether the Ambassador breached his assurance, the Foreign Secretary said he simply took note of the position conveyed to him that the message received from his Embassy was not acceptable. And he said he would convey that to his authorities.

Breach of faith

External Affairs Ministry sources said the main issue was breach of faith with one diplomat saying he had not come across such an instance anywhere in the world during his three decades of service. Italy and India had interacted extensively on the technicalities of the case and it was obvious they did not agree on three aspects — jurisdiction, applicability of Article 97 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the right of marines posted on a cargo ship to fire on suspected pirates.