Nations that want to be taken seriously must match their actions with that aspiration. The refusal to send back Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone — the Marines aboard the merchant ship Enrica Lexie accused of shooting and killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast after mistaking them for pirates — may win the new Italian government brownie points at home but is conduct unbecoming of a responsible nation. The duo were permitted by the Supreme Court to visit Italy to cast their votes in the February 22 national election, on a promise by the Italian government that they would return to India to face trial. Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi of the outgoing government spoke glowingly of the decision as “evidence of the climate of mutual trust and cooperation with Indian authorities.” Italy now stands in breach of that trust. The Italian foreign ministry says New Delhi did not heed its request for a diplomatic resolution, a curious statement considering all avenues for such resolution have already been tried and exhausted.
From day one, Italy has questioned India’s jurisdiction in the matter, as according to it, the incident took place in international waters. The Supreme Court ruled in January that while India indeed had jurisdiction, only the Union government — and not Kerala — could investigate or try the case. Accordingly, it ordered a special court for the purpose. But the ruling’s “high seas” description of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone beyond the 12-nautical mile line that marks the formal extent of the maritime boundary was certainly favourable to the Italian side. The Court also went so far as to leave the jurisdiction question open, saying Italy could challenge India’s right to try the two men in the special court. With all this, the Italians could hardly have claimed that the legal process was biased against them. While India-Italy ties will not be the same again, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the two accused men to leave India is also curious. Permission was given on the basis of a Kerala High Court order that granted the Marines a two-week sojourn in Italy during Christmas. That was in itself a highly unusual decision. The Supreme Court seems to have persuaded itself to believe that having returned once, they would certainly return again. But having done that, it laid down none of the stringent conditions to ensure the Marines came back, as the High Court had done. Those included execution of a Rs 6 crore bank guarantee, and undertakings by the Italian envoy taking responsibility for their return. The fact that it did not press these issues in February is another embarrassment for the UPA, which stands exposed for allowing itself to be taken for a ride so easily by a foreign government.