“We are not throwing marines into the fray, towards an unknown destiny,” says Foreign Minister Terzi

A poorly managed incident, a dramatic turnabout that shows the weakness of the Italian government. With these words, several Italian politicians have commented on the last-minute decision of the government to return the two marines, Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre, accused of killing two Indian fishermen in February 2012, back to India. The two were given permission to come back to Italy for the elections with the promise that they return to New Delhi by March 22. A few days ago, however, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Giulio Terzi announced that the two wouldn’t go back to India, generating anger in India. Finally, on Thursday night, came the turnabout. “The word of an Italian is sacrosanct,” the Italian government said.

According to La Repubblica, Navy and Foreign Affairs ministry officials took five hours to get Latorre and Girone — both of whom were described as “psychological wrecks” — to board the plane that took them back to New Delhi.

Right-wing parties have harshly condemned the latest move of the Italian government. “It’s an unexpected and severe decision. It looks like we are going back to our weak past. In this way we lose credibility both nationally and internationally,” Secretary of The People of Freedom Party (centre-right) Angelino Alfano thundered.

According to Mariastella Gelmini, a former minister of education in the government of Silvio Berlusconi, “the marines don’t deserve this type of treatment. They have faced Indian prison with extreme loyalty, honour, and patriotism. We are returning to the typical Italian waltzes.” Even more outraged was Senator Maurizio Gasparri; according to him “the whole incident was ineptly conducted and has exposed Italy to ridicule.”

Harsher reactions came from the far-right party led by Francesco Storace, which took less than 1 per cent of the vote in the last elections. Over the past few months, militants of his party have organised several initiatives in support of the marines. Now, after the decision to send the duo back to India, Mr. Storace and his supporters are outraged. “We feel sorrow, pain and indignation,” he wrote on Twitter.

During the night, militants of the party posted a banner in front of the Foreign Ministry in Rome with a single word: “Shame.” According to Gianluigi Limido, national leader of the party, Foreign Minister Terzi “provided another evidence of the weakness of a government that can no longer be respected in any field.”

But not everyone is critical. According to the centre-left Democratic Party, “the decision to send the marines back to India is a tormented decision, but a wise one.” Lapo Pistelli, in charge of the party’s foreign affairs department, said: “The Italian government’s decision is tough, but it goes in the right direction of regaining the country’s credibility and restoring good relations with India. Now we do expect New Delhi to be cooperative and responsible.” Even if the words used by the centre-left party are calmer than the right’s, it wants to know what really happened behind the scenes, since the government’s U-turn surprised almost everyone. “I think it would be very useful for Parliament to know what really happened,” said its Senate member Rosa Maria Di Giorgi. “Then we will give our evaluation.”

The news about the marines’ return to India dominated the front pages of almost all Italian newspapers on Friday. “Italy steps off. The soldiers come back to India” is the headline of the Turin-based La Stampa. Il Fatto Quotidiano, on the other hand, stressed the poorly managed diplomatic situation by saying the Italian government cut a “poor figure” and lacked credibility. According to Il Giornale, which is close to the centre-right, the Italian government even “betrayed Italy” by assuming “an absurd and schizophrenic conduct putting the marines’ skin at stake.”

The marines were part of a military security team on a cargo ship when they fired at a fishing boat in February 2012, killing two fishermen. The marines said they mistook the fishing boat for a pirate craft.

Several politicians have demanded the resignation of Mr. Terzi, but he said he had no intention of quitting. “Italy is not throwing the two marines into the fray, towards an unknown destiny. They do not face the risk of the death penalty,” he said in an interview with La Repubblica. According to him, the Indian authorities have provided “guarantees on the living conditions of the two soldiers,” and hence sending them back was not a mistake. “I am not going to resign. I’ve always worked hard trying to resolve the situation.” The general feeling on the Italian street, however, is that the issue is still far from resolved.

(Giulia Belardelli is a reporter with La Repubblica, which contributed this story at the request of The Hindu.)

More In: National | News