In the end, the Italian government did what was right and sensible by sending back the marines accused of killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast to face trial here in India. Not doing so would have only led to an upward spiral of political and diplomatic tensions between the two countries, with repercussions that neither side wants. Undoubtedly it was the firm stand taken by India that influenced the Italian decision. The Supreme Court restrained Ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving the country for violating the undertaking he had given that the two marines would come back after voting in their country’s elections. New Delhi held back its newly appointed Ambassador to Italy. Most importantly, the political leadership was unequivocal in its condemnation of Italy’s conduct. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was emphatic that Rome’s refusal last week to send back the two was ‘unacceptable’. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi described it as a ‘betrayal’. National outrage, and quick, decisive diplomacy when the Italians sought some basic assurances in the eleventh hour helped Rome to make a controversial U-turn.

For Italy, the decision must have been difficult given the high national sentiment there on the issue. From the time of the incident, the Italian government had been under fire for not doing enough to get the two marines out of India. Both times when they went home with court permission, first for Christmas, and then to vote, they were received like national heroes. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told Parliament that Rome had sought the assurance that the marines would not be arrested on their return to India, and that they would not be given the death sentence if found guilty; India has given those assurances. Anyway, it was always highly unlikely that the court would hand out the maximum sentence for the crime with which the two marines are charged. What New Delhi has done is to help the Italian government make its latest decision more palatable to the families of the marines and to its people. The families of the dead fishermen will now expect an expeditious trial. So too the international community, for how the Indian judicial system deals with the case will have ramifications for the U.N. Convention on the Law of Seas. That is why it is puzzling — and more than a little disconcerting — that for all the sound and fury emanating from the Centre last week, it has yet to act on the Supreme Court’s January order that a special court be set up for the trial of the marines. There must be no more delay in setting up the court, and proceeding with the trial.

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