By Aman Sharma
Where are the Italian marines–in which jail? That was one of the rhetorical questions posed by Narendra Modi during his election campaign.
But rousing patriotic emotions in the quest for votes is one thing, diplomacy is another, as the new government has been quick to understand. On Wednesday, the government agreed in the Supreme Court (SC) that one of the marines, Massimiliano Latorre, can stay in Italy until April for health reasons. He would have been away from India for seven months by then.
Nearly three years after Latorre and fellow marine Salvatore Girone shot dead two Indian fishermen on the high seas, they are still to face trial. The BJP government admits it’s considering a consensual agreement with Italy to settle the matter.
That’s really the best option. It’s time to end the charade and send the marines home for good to face a military trial in Rome. The NDA government, like its predecessor, has no interest in punishing the marines, given that India’s diplomatic relations with the European Union are at stake. The Italians know this well and have played the diplomatic game to perfection, walking India into a legal trap.
The goof-ups began in 2013 when then home secretary RK Singh sent the case to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and not the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after SC transferred the case to a “central agency”. NIA invoked a little-known antipiracy law to give itself jurisdiction since it otherwise cannot probe simple murder cases unlike the CBI.
Italy immediately protested that the anti-piracy law carried a mandatory death sentence, which contradicted the assurance given by then foreign minister Salman Khurshid to Italy. But India dug its head into the sand, choosing to remain oblivious of what lay ahead. NIA completed its probe and asked the home ministry for approval to charge the marines. That was granted amidst Italy’s rising protests.
The attorney general then advised NIA to charge the marines under a different section of the anti-piracy law that only carried a 10-yearsentence. NIA agreed as it was still charging the marines for murder under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). A second sanction order was issued by the ministry. Italy was still not impressed.
Then law minister Kapil Sibal intervened after Italy made it clear that it did not want the anti-piracy law used at all. The home ministry issued a third sanction order saying the marines would only be tried under IPC. The trap was thus well and truly sprung. Italy told SC that without the anti-piracy law, NIA had no jurisdiction to charge the marines at all. Italy has since argued that while the anti-piracy law extends over India’s exclusive economic zone, IPC only covers territorial waters and the incident took place outside the latter. Italy can raise the jurisdictional issue only during a trial, the NIA contends.
While in power, both UPA and NDA, have been soft on the marines. The government is open to letting the marines serve their sentence in Italy if convicted here. It might as well now agree to them being tried in Italy too.