Italy stands guilty not only of causing the death of innocent people, but also of violating a solemn promise given in the name of a sovereign state

The tremors of an act of Italian perfidy instantly reached the shores of Kerala on Monday night, where some impoverished fisherfolk have been waiting for justice for more than a year. The Italians, ranging from consular officials to the Foreign Minister of Italy, who visited the relatives of the victims of the shooting in February last year, had appeared reasonable and sympathetic. In fact, there was even appreciation for the extent to which the Italian Government was ready to go to rescue their marines. Its decision not to send the marines back to India to stand trial by revoking the solemn guarantee given by the Italian Government to the Supreme Court of India came as a rude shock. At a moment when the believers are focused on Italy because of the papal election, the country’s reputation and credibility have hit an all-time low.

Setting up confrontation

For most Europeans, to whom “Italian Justice” refers to the many failings of the judicial system in the country, the action may not come as a surprise. There is barely any iconic case in Italy that has given confidence to the people that justice has been done. Even after verdicts have been given, “conspiracy theorizing” is known to be a national pastime. A country with such a reputation for a cavalier attitude to law was not worthy of the trust bestowed on it by the Supreme Court of India. The defiance of the Supreme Court on the one hand and violation of basic diplomatic norms on the other have brought Italy to an unprecedented confrontation with India.

As the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, leaves for Delhi for urgent consultations, at the top of his agenda will be the frustration and disappointment of the people of Kerala, who had expected that justice would be done when the case was transferred to the Supreme Court. Effigies of the marines were burnt on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday. The demands made by the people of Kerala range from exploring possible legal avenues to imprisoning the Italian Ambassador till the marines return. Kerala had specifically objected to releasing the marines to travel to Italy to participate in the elections on the basis of a guarantee from a diplomat, who enjoys immunity against the laws of the country. The High Court of Kerala had allowed them to visit Italy for Christmas only after depositing Rs.6 crore as guarantee. If the marines had not returned, at least the families of victims would have been adequately compensated.

Steps before India

Italy had argued, right from the beginning, that the shooting took place in international waters and that India had no jurisdiction in the case. But having faced court action in Kerala, the Italians fought the battle in the courts and simultaneously pressed the government of India at the highest level to resolve the issue diplomatically. They had sensed the impact of public opinion on the courts in Kerala and tried to take the case out of the State. At one time, a compromise was worked out with the help of certain church groups, but the court rejected it. It was with a sigh of relief that Italy greeted the decision by the Supreme Court of India to move the case to Delhi and try it in a special court under the provision of maritime laws, including the Law of the Sea. In the midst of all this, Italy even managed to get India to announce the ratification of a treaty with Italy that allows citizens convicted of crimes in either country to serve their prison sentences in their home country. Against this backdrop, the resorting by Italy to violation of an explicit undertaking is all the more reprehensible.

The Prime Minister of India has termed the Italian action unacceptable and the strong protest of India has been conveyed to the Italian Ambassador in Delhi. Italy will seek international arbitration to appear reasonable, but will not agree to return the marines. It might also say that the agreement reached by the previous Italian government was rejected by the Italian electorate and would not be binding on the new government. The strongest action India can take is to recall our Ambassador to Italy or to expel the Italian Ambassador or both, thus creating a breach in the relationship. On the legal side, India can declare the marines absconders from law, notify Interpol and seek their extradition, but the case will be at the mercy of an Italian court. None of these measures will bring the Italian marines back, but in diplomacy and international law, India has a major grievance against Italy, which will have an adverse impact on bilateral relations. It is incumbent on Italy to make amends to save its face internationally.

For the poor fishermen of Kerala, devastated by the shooting and killing of innocent people, who could have hardly been suspected to be pirates and now been denied justice, the fine points of the law or the present diplomatic row will not bring relief. The families had, at one time, reportedly agreed to a compensation package and that should be settled if they still are willing to accept it. For the rest, international law and diplomatic exchanges will continue indefinitely. Italy stands guilty not only of causing the death of innocent people, but also of breach of trust and violation of a solemn promise given in the name of a sovereign state. India is left to face the shame of having been duped by another nation it trusted. Kerala will remain aggrieved both with its own Central government as well as Italy that its efforts to secure justice for its people were thwarted.

(T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council and director general, Kerala International Centre.)

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