After initial disputes over the jurisdiction of the marines and a brief fear over their flight, Italy agreed to India’s adjudication over the case after the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) promised not to seek the death penalty. Since then, the case has hardly moved forward except to wade into the minefield of political posturing.
In March 2013, the Government of India announced the establishment of a special court to hear the case; this was largely to expedite a case that would have a direct impact on the country’s foreign relations. However, contrary to the MEA’s assurance not to seek the death penalty, the Ministry of Home Affairs decided to prosecute the Italians under the stringent Suppression of Unlawful Activities (SUA) Act.
In response to Delhi’s sudden hard stance – the marines had been allowed to go home over Christmas and to vote last year – Rome recalled its ambassador, Daniele Mancini, to discuss the issue. The Italian foreign ministry condemned the “evident Indian inability to handle the issue” and has complained about yet another “unacceptable, deliberate delay” in the courts. While the Italian government summoned the Indian ambassador to register a protest, some Italians have taken to writing hate mail to the Indian Embassy and a live bullet was found in the mailbox a few days ago.
The invocation of the SUA, unwittingly or otherwise, has consequences far beyond the immediate trial of the marines. The Italian government has told the Supreme Court of India that charging their marines under SUA is tantamount to declaring Italy a terrorist state. Rome has also approached its European Union counterparts as well as the United States to urge them to condemn India’s charge of piracy against the Italian marines. NATO has expressed concern over Delhi’s reckless expansion of the scope of piracy and terrorism, as has the European Union.
The uncertainty over which law the Italians would be tried under even after two years – the Indian government has changed its mind six times – led the Supreme Court last week to ask the government to file an affidavit clearly specifying the law under which it intends to try Latorre and Girone. Buckling under international pressure, Delhi dropped the charges under Section 3(g) of the SUA which carried the death penalty if found guilty. The Indian government insists that the trial will be held in India and hopes to retain charges under Section 3(a) of the SUA, which carry ten years imprisonment for the guilty. Italy has objected to the very notion of an anti-terrorism law being applied to its marines and asked that Latorre and Girone be allowed to go home until the trial starts.
The marines case did not make much of a splash in Italy two years ago when the marines were initially arrested; most Italians were content for the law to take its course. However, the inept handling of the case by the Indian government has put the issue in the spotlight in Italy and support for the marines has increased dramatically. Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has assured his countrymen that the “absurd and infuriating affair” will remain a priority for him. The Italian press has now even suggested that India’s ruling Congress party is trying to secure a quid pro quo between the case of the Italian marines and the AgustaWestland corruption scandal.
Unfortunately for Latorre and Girone who have already spent two years in limbo in India, the upcoming general elections make progress on their case extremely difficult. If the Indian government releases them until charges are filed, or if it decides, by an uncharacteristic stroke of common sense, to diplomatic arbitration as Italy had initially suggested, there is little doubt that Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins will be bandied about in the press and on social media. However, pushing on may reveal the weakness of India’s position, that the marines are culpable, at most, of homicide not amounting to murder. Indians might ask, then, why the case was not settled two years ago and the generous compensation package offered by Italy accepted. To a long list of election woes, the Congress may not wish to add yet another one.
There is no level at which this case has not been mishandled by the Indian government. From the initial claim over jurisdiction to the questionable permission for the marines to go home, and now the indecision over what law to try the accused under, politics and public perception have been allowed to undermine the judicial process at every step. While two years to file charges may be considered quick by Indian standards, it is positively shameful in any modern democracy. The Indian government’s behaviour has turned a non-newsworthy arrest into popular public support for the marines back home, a disinterested Italian press into one that hints at conspiracies and further scandals in India, and by-standing European nations into concerned Italian allies.
India’s Home Ministry has openly worked against the MEA (to what end can only be speculated) and harmed its ties with a friendly foreign power for the sake of Delhi’s incessant domestic squabbles. That no one in the government sees this for the diplomatic train wreck that it is or does anything about it makes one wonder if India’s leaders are indeed ready to play a larger role on the world stage that they often lay claim to. The tragedy of the two slain fishermen has now been compounded by the unreasonably long captivity of Girone and Latorre. Whether justice is forthcoming soon or not, India and its legal system have been made to look the part of a clown on the international stage.
Jaideep spends most of his time avoiding work; when not married to his books, he likes to cook, sail, and scuba. A great admirer of Hatshepsut, Jaideep refuses to live in the 21st century. He grew up in the Middle East and Europe. When forced into wage slavery, he is a doctoral student in History at Vanderbilt University. He tweets at @orsoraggiante.