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Indian government draws fire for letting accused Italian marines leave

Two Italian marines who had been awaiting trial in India for killing two Kerala fisherman they mistook for pirates have been allowed to return home to Italy.

Italian marines Latore Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone are escorted by Indian police outside a court in Kollam on May 25, 2012.
Italian marines Latore Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone are escorted by Indian police outside a court in Kollam on May 25, 2012.

NEW DELHI // Politicians yesterday attacked the Indian government over its decision to allow two Italian marines who had been awaiting trial for killing two Kerala fishermen to return home.

Italy said on Monday that it would not allow the two marines to return to India for prosecution, arguing that the shooting happened in international waters and that India had refused to find a diplomatic solution to the issue.

Opposition MPs protested in both houses of India's parliament, demanding the government explain what it plans to do to bring the marines back.

"This is a betrayal by the Italian government," said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the spokesman of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. "It is a breach of trust between two sovereign nations and the act is completely unacceptable."

Mr Rudy said the government should make every effort to bring the marines back to face "trial under Indian laws and in Indian courts".

The government had allowed the marines to return to Italy in February to vote in national elections and to celebrate Easter with their families. They also returned home at Christmas.

The marines had been part of a six-man antipiracy unit aboard an oil tanker in February last year when they opened fire on a fishing boat off the Kerala coast, which they said they mistook for a pirate craft, killing the fishermen.

India said it was considering what legal and diplomatic steps to take next.

"We are studying the implications of the position taken by Italy. We will take an informed decision after examining the communication from Italy," said Salman Khurshid, the minister for external affairs.

Oommen Chandy, the chief minister of Kerala, said Italy's response was unacceptable. "Our stand remains the same: that they should stand trial here, according to Indian law," he said.

Father John Churchill, a Roman Catholic priest who is the general secretary of the South ASIAN Fishermen Fraternity, yesterday visited the family of Ajesh Binki, one of the dead fishermen.

"His sister old me that the Indian government has really destroyed any hope she had of getting justice for her brother's killing," said Father Churchill, who is also Binki's cousin. "She felt that the Indian government has failed her family."

Father Churchill said his organisation believes the Italian government has "weakened the Indian judiciary by not co-operating with our legal proceedings".

"And if the Indian government is not able to act against the marines, it shows a leniency towards the attack on one of its own citizens," he said.

Nitin Pai, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent Chennai-based think tank, blamed the Indian government and the Supreme Court for its decision "to accept Rome's bona fides, because its leaders and officials have consistently demonstrated their contempt for the Indian judicial system right from the start".

But he also said that Italian government had acted "like a rogue state".

"New Delhi will have to signal that it will not let illegal actions by foreign governments go unpunished," he said.

Last year, Italy paid compensation of 10 million rupees (Dh706,000) each to the families of the fishermen.

The marines said they had put their faith in the Italian government to help them.

"I knew that our government wasn't abandoning us. It wouldn't abandon us. They gave us four weeks from when we returned to Italy to vote, and I felt that something would happen, something positive, I mean," Salvatore Girone was quoted as saying by the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

But he said they were not celebrating their release.

"There isn't anything to celebrate. Our case is not over yet," Mr Girone said.

Italy's government had petitioned India on several occasions to allow the marines to stand trial in Italy. The status of the marines became something of a cause celebre last October.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

* With additional reports from the Associated Press