Imprisoned Italian sailors causing diplomatic tensions between Italy and India

The diplomatic row over the detention of the Italian Maro’

On the sixteenth of February, the « Marò case » exploded onto the front page of every Italian newspaper. An act of terrorism, says the Indian judge in charge of leading the trial. A legitimate act of self-defence, reply the Italian sailors. The truth is still far from clear. Today, after over a month, the case is still causing tensions to run high, and a huge, irrevocable crisis between India and Italy seems closer each day.

On 15 February 2012, two Italian soldiers, members of the San Marco Regiment, shot 24 rifle rounds at an Indian fishing boat, killing two crew members, a 21-year-old and a 50-year-old. The vessel, the Saint Antony, which had departed on 7th February for the tuna fishing season, was carrying 11 people from the very south of India.

The two Italian soldiers, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, so-called « Marò » (sailors), in navy jargon, opened fire from the oil tanker on which they were working, the Enrica Lexie. « They were pirates, and were armed. They tried to attack us and our ship. We reacted to defend ourselves and the ship. It’s our job. Their behaviour was typical of the pirates that operate in this area : for example, the way they approached our ship was the same method used by pirates in these waters when they attempt to hijack a vessel. They didn’t even respond to warning signals », the Marò told the Indian police in the port of Kochi, where the Italian tanker was taken after the incident. The Indian government, however, gave its support to the police, confirming three months of detention for the Italian soldiers in Thiruvananthapuram Prison, where they await trial.

But the truth seems to be far from clear. The Marò account differs greatly from the official version given by the Indian government, who have denied that the fishermen had arms on board. They say that the crew were sleeping when the attack began, the only exceptions being the two men that were killed, as they were stood on guard on-deck. According to accounts given to police by the surviving Indian crew members, the Italian sailors shot continuously for more than two minutes. For the families of each of the victims, the government has asked for 300,000 rupees in compensation, which is slightly less than £4,000.

When the Italian authorities arrived in India, widespread protests exploded across the country against Italy and its citizens, especially throughout the Kerala region. This environment of anger and hate towards Italy and Italians has created such animosity that some believe it was the reason for the kidnapping of two Italian civilians, Paolo Bosusco and Claudio Colangelo, in India as tourists, who were abducted in the Orissa region of India on March 14th by a group of Maoist combatants.

Orissa is theatre of a bloody war, in which the group of Maoist rebels play a key role. It seems that the rebels kidnapped the Italians while they were taking pictures of Maoist women bathing in the river. According to the Maoist version of events, the two episodes are not connected. What is certain, however, it is that this doesn’t make the negotiations between Italy and India any easier. After ten days, local Indian media reported that the two hostages had been released, but the Italian embassy in India could only confirm that they had managed to speak with Claudio Colangelo. Mr Colangelo said he was okay and that he was now in a location near Tanjungia. Unfortunately he couldn’t comment on the wellbeing or whereabouts of his friend, Paolo Bosusco.

To return to the Marò case, Italian diplomats now say that the Enrica Lexie was 30 miles off the Indian coast and thus in international waters. In such a case, the crew of any vessel are obliged to abide by the maritime laws of the nation represented by the national flag flown on their vessel. In this instance the vessel, the Enrica Lexie, flew the Italian flag and, as such, was bound to follow Italian maritime law.

However, unsurprisingly and perhaps understandably, the Indian authorities claim that the incident took place within India’s sea boundaries and, as such, the Enrica Lexie was obliged to follow Indian maritime law. After leading the Italian oil tanker into the Port of Kochi, the Indian police arrested the two Italian soldiers, accusing them of having murdered unarmed fishermen. A « terrorist attack » is how Indian Judge Gopinathan described the incident as he was appointed to preside over the trial in the High Court of Kerala. Terrorism, “because they shot unarmed men, without any initial warning”.

Nothing has since moved the judge from his position, not even the speech of defence lawyer VJ Thomas, who stated that the actions of the Marò could not be called “terrorism” according to the Convention of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) against international piracy. The convention, known as the “SUA Act” (Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 1988) or ’the “Convention Lauro” (named after the hijacking of the ship Achille Lauro) defines “maritime terrorism” as the hijacking of a ship, violence against persons on board or damage to the ship or its cargo.

Italian public opinion and a large number of politicians are convinced that the European Union can and must exercise the necessary political and diplomatic pressure to persuade India to fully respect international law. The EU could even impose sanctions against India, be they political, diplomatic or commercial, if India doesn’t release the two Italian soldiers. But for the time being at least, the European Union has kept itself out of this particular diplomatic furore.

Italian Premier Mario Monti, during the Ecofin meeting in Brussels, spoke with Catherine Ashton about the possibility of an official diplomatic action by the European Union to free the Italian soldiers. Unfortunately, the response from the EU, in the words of Ashton, was not what Italy was looking for. Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that the EU would support Italy in this difficult situation. She said that a first contact with Indian authorities had been made via a call to the Indian government, and that she had discussed with India the necessity of cooperating against international piracy and working together to establish new rules to protect the lives of European soldiers that are working in that part of the world. But for the moment, after over a month, nothing has changed. No progress has been made and words alone will not resolve the situation.

An Italian engineer, Luigi Di Stefano, the man charged with investigating the evidence of the two Marò, has explained that their trial is based on untruths and false evidence, one example of which is the bullet found in the body of one of the men during autopsy. The Indian pathologist who examined the victims reported the presence of a 0.54" (13mm) long bullet. A bullet of this calibre, according to Di Stefano, doesn’t exist. The only reasonable conclusion, if those measurements are correct, is that the gun used to shoot the two men was a 7.62x54R Soviet PK machine gun, and not a 5.56x45 Beretta AR 70/90 rifle, or Minimi FN machine gun, which were the only weapons onboard the Enrica Lexie.

In support of their statement, the two Marò also claimed that a Greek ship in the same zone, the Olympic Flairs, had been attacked by the same Indian pirates just a few days before. Unfortunately for the Marò, this information was ignored by the Indian judge and authorities, and the Indian investigators have decided not to call the members of the Olympic Flairs as witnesses during the trial.

The Court was supposed to make a decision on 27th March, but after noticing incongruencies in Italy’s appeal, the Judge suspended the trial once again.

What has been certain throughout this chaotic case is that Italian diplomacy seems once again too weak to solve these kind of controversies without calling for the EU’s help. On the human side of the issue, we shouldn’t forget that the life of two men is now in the hands of a Court which has already shown that it lacks the procedural acumen to manage such an important trial, and which has proved unable to deal with the evidence of the case without making basic mistakes. In this power play, the political conflict seems once again to be prevailing over reason and competency, with guilt on both sides. And meanwhile, as consequence of this growing diplomatic row, the position of the two Marò looks bleaker with each passing day.

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