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The perfidy of the Italian government in the case of two of its marines detained in India for the charge of murder has stunned most observers. Under the pretext of exercising their suffrage, the Supreme Court of India allowed Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone to return to Italy for a period of four weeks under the guarantee of the Italian Ambassador to India, Daniele Mancini. However, after the sailors’ safe arrival home, Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi announced on March 11 that the sailors will in fact not be returning to India to stand trial.

There are many questions involving this matter. First, why did the SCI allow the prisoners, charged with murder, to go home to vote? Why did the SCI allow them home for Christmas in 2012? This is not a privilege extended to all prisoners in India. Second, why did the SCI allow them to go home without even posting a bond? When the SCI allowed them home for Christmas, a ₹6 crore bail bond had to be paid.

Not surprisingly, there is much chest thumping in India at being hoodwinked by Rome. As Thucydides said, “Men’s indignation is more excited by legal wrong than by violent wrong; the first looks like being cheated by an equal, the second like being compelled by a superior.” In the ill will generated by the Italian government’s duplicity through Mancini, Indian rhetoric on the death of the two Keralite fishermen has become noticeably and unnecessarily shriller.

India’s handling of the legal process in the death of the two Keralite fishermen on February 15, 2012, has not been, contrary to its own belief, entirely kosher. The fishermen died when the Italian marines, serving as guards for the commercial liner MV Enrica Lexie, opened fire on the fishing vessel, St. Anthony under the impression that the Enrica Lexie was being assaulted by pirates. While the Indian Coast Guard submitted in its February 28 report to the Kerala High Court that the fishing vessel was 100 metres away from the Enrica Lexie and no danger to it, another vessel, alleged to be the Greek ship Olympic Flair, came under attack from 20 robbers on the same day. This seems to indicate that there was probable cause for a higher level of alert and caution on the part of the Enrica Lexie.

The Coast Guard’s report also mentioned that the Italian ship was 22.5 nautical miles off the cast of Kerala. This is beyond the 12-mile limit of national territorial waters within which India has exclusive jurisdiction. It is also within the 24-mile contiguous zone and the 200-mile Economic Exclusion Zone beyond which international waters indisputably start and the marines would have come under the jurisdiction of the country whose flag the vessel was flying. The dispute is over which country has jurisdiction and the degree of rights over the 188 miles in between the EEZ and territorial waters.

Piracy did not have any legal status in the Indian Penal Code until 2012. This has caused much confusion over how to prosecute Somali pirates captured and held by India in its operations in the Arabian Sea. The Piracy Bill was designed to address this lacuna in Indian law, and it extends Indian jurisdiction over the entire extent of the EEZ. The bill does so on the basis of India’s interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, extending security as well as economic rights to the limits of the EEZ. Italy disputes India’s interpretation of extending security rights over the EEZ, and claims that UNCLOS provides state actors immunity from prosecution. Section 1 of the Indian Penal Code does not, Rome argues, cover the EEZ – which is why, for example, the Customs Tariff Act was specifically extended to cover the EEZ in 2002. However, India’s interpretation of UNCLOS – which some may argue was never the framers’ intent – allows it to bring into play Section 188 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that anyone committing a crime on Indian territory can be prosecuted in India. New Delhi also argues that Article 6 of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence against the Safety of Maritime Navigation Convention gives it jurisdiction over the Italian sailors. Whatever statutes we can quote, the fact remains that this is as yet sparsely charted territory in international law. Disputes over the interpretation of UNCLOS involve several countries, most notably China and her neighbours.

Given the ambiguity of the law, Italy’s proposal to India has been that the issue be resolved through diplomatic means – it would be no justice to hold the accused until the law is written and then try them since the law would not only be post facto but the process could also take years. India has steadfastly refused the Italian proposal, and on January 18, the SCI announced that India would have exclusive jurisdiction over the case. Considering that Italy’s actions had thus far been reassuring – the return of the Enrica Lexie to Kochi port, the generous settlement of the civil case with the families of the victims, the return of the sailors after Christmas – India might have been better served in the short term by accepting Italy’s proposal for a diplomatic solution and inviting interested states for an international conference on UNCLOS to further jurisprudence in this area.

Indian editorials have screamed that the Italian marines must be tried in India. Some have even suggested that Italy’s demand for jurisdiction over its sailors is an indication of its distrust of the Indian legal system, a sentiment stemming from racism. Yet others have demanded that India assert its national interest and seek justice for its slain citizens. Others have even put forward a conspiracy theory based on Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins. This uncritical stance is deeply disappointing as it does nothing to further the discussion. First, it is difficult to understand why the marines must be tried in India – let the legal experts haggle over the details of the umpteen national and international laws, treaties, and customs and decide for future cases. In the interests of swift justice and avoiding political acrimony, a diplomatic solution seems more pragmatic. Second, it amuses me to no end how postcolonials bring up the bête noire of modern civilised society – racism – whenever they are dealing with a white country, regardless of facts and certainly without proof. In this case, it is claimed that racism is what keeps Italy from accepting Indian jurisdiction over their soldiers, that they do not think a coloured court can dispense with justice as well as a white court can. One need only glance at the abhorrent state of the judiciary in India – people imprisoned for years without trial, corruption, legislative or executive influence – to know that one need not be a racist to accept the Italian observation.

Third, the defence of national interest is indeed a strange cry when Indian fishermen are regularly killed by the Sri Lankan navy – 85 in the last ten years, according to the Indian government. Conveniently forgotten is also the USNS Rappahannock incident in July 2012 which left one Indian fisherman dead and three injured. Fourth, there is no doubt that the Indian National Congress and its allies have functioned dubiously; there are plenty of whispered allegations about the party leadership. Yet this is only gossip-mongering or blowing off steam at the national level and none of it constitutes proof; it is unworthy of our time.

India’s case against Italy is that the official government in Rome lied to New Delhi through its Ambassador. Italy failed to perform its duties and behave with honour. The case of the two marines is effectively in abeyance as long as Italy holds the marines and disputes exclusive Indian jurisdiction over the case.

What are India’s options at this point? New Delhi will have to declare Mancini persona non grata for lying while serving in an official capacity; it can scale back government business with Italy for a few years but this will hurt India more than Italy since the balance of trade is in the former’s favour; India can exert pressure on Italy to return the marines through its European friends but it is unlikely to bear fruit; New Delhi can downgrade diplomatic relations with Rome but a reduction of consulates will only hurt tourism and business. All the while, India should simultaneously also seek a diplomatic resolution to the case, particularly since a legal solution seems increasingly unlikely. New Delhi would have been better off accepting Italy’s initial offer of a diplomatic solution; now, India’s message should be that it is and was always willing to resolve the issue in the fairest possible manner. Moderation may be a virtue only in those deemed to have an alternative, but India must now make virtue out of necessity. Petulance comes easily; statesmanship is harder.

‡: I appeared on NDTV’s The Social Network on this topic

This post appeared on Tehelka on March 13, 2013.