Two unrelated incidents — arrest of two marines who killed two fishermen from Kerala in Indian waters and the kidnapping of two foreign tourists by Naxals in Odisha — were related only by the fact that the killer marines and the kidnapped tourists were Italians. The tourists being victims deserved sympathy. The marines being criminals did not. For two months, informed Indians were curiously watching how the UPA government would handle the two Italian-related issues. The reason was obvious. The victims and criminals were Italians and Sonia Gandhi, who heads the UPA and the National Advisory Council, is an Italian expatriate. There was lurking suspicion that the tourists would be freed whatever the cost and the killers would also go scot free. To add to the suspicion, the Italian government openly interfered with the judicial process in the murder case. But, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, acted promptly, detained the ship Enrica Lexie, arrested the accused and lodged them in jail.
In a statement issued the day after the murder, the Italian embassy labelled the fishermen as pirates who attacked the Italian ship in international waters and said that after repeated warnings and after ascertaining from binoculars that the pirates were armed, the Italian marines fired some warning shots and the pirates withdrew. The statement was a total lie. Nine fishermen were sleeping in the boat and two, who were awake, were shot. The Italians began claiming that the incident — read murder — took place beyond the territorial waters of India and therefore, the Indian police had no business to act. The Roman Catholic church too intervened. Cardinal George Alancherry, newly ordained by Rome as cardinal, told the Catholic news agency Fides in Rome, “I immediately contacted the Catholic ministers to ask the Kerala government not to take precipitate action.”
The arrogant Italian denial of the right of India to act against the crime was met with equally stern response from the external affairs ministry. The very day Italy claimed innocence, defence minister A K Antony, who hails from Kerala, declared that the guilty would be punished under Indian law. Rome first sent a minister, then its foreign minister, to pressure on New Delhi. India insisted that the two Italian murderers would be tried in India, not in Italy, as Rome wanted. How could Italy prosecute after having denied the offence itself and declared the offenders as innocent and the victims as pirates? Italy was obviously drawing a blank on the diplomatic front. New Delhi firmly took the position that the murderous firing took place from the ship and the offence occurred within the territorial waters of India which extends to 22 nautical miles off Kerala coast. If the killing had taken place when the ship was inside Indian waters, then the offence is triable in India. This would call for full investigation. Only an FIR has been registered. The Kerala High Court ordered the release of the ship on bank guarantee and on the undertaking that the ship and the crew would be brought back to India when needed. The order was challenged in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile the Italian tourists kidnap by Naxalites added another dimension to the murky Indo-Italian relations. The tourists had disregarded the warning of the Odisha police against going to Naxal areas. For their recklessness, the Odisha government had to pay a heavy price at India’s cost to free them by barter, releasing not one or two, but 27 hardened criminals, including 15 Naxals, in exchange for just one of the two abducted Italians, the other having been freed earlier. The Indian home minister was on hand with the issue. But for the fact that the reckless tourists were Italians — imagine they were Ghanians, Ugandans or Kenyans – would such a high cost have been paid, is the obvious question in everyone’s mind. Yet no one, including the media always prone to pontificate, has the guts to ask.
Italians seem used to kidnapping. At least five Italians had been kidnapped by Taliban almost one every year from 2004 to 2007. Four of them were journalists. Two were killed, and three set free — one of them for a ransom, another in exchange for five Taliban terrorists released by Afghan government. Again, a week after the high cost Odisha deal to free the Italians came the news that an Italian woman journalist, who had been abducted by al-Qaeda 14 months back, had been set free by them only four days back! No one knew where the woman had been kept by the Taliban for such a long time and heavens did not fall. Could India not have waited for a couple of months, if not for 14 months like in the al-Qaeda case? What was the emergency to get them freed at five times the cost paid by the Afghan government for freeing an Italian from Taliban custody? Curious. Isn’t it?
Now back to the killer Italians. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the ship should be allowed to sail. Harin Raval, an additional solicitor general of India, stunned the nation and the Supreme Court by telling the court that when the marines killed the fishermen the Italian ship was not in Indian waters. Precisely Italy’s case but from ASG Raval’s mouth! Raval also implied that the defence minister, ministry of foreign affairs, shipping minister, and Kerala chief minister were all liars. But, in the afternoon, Raval told the court that what he had told the judges in the morning was not government’s view, but his opinion. How could the fact whether the ship was in or out of the national waters be a matter of opinion? The external affairs ministry and Kerala chief minister again asserted that the ASG was wrong. The latter asked for his removal from the case. The shipping ministry said that ASG acted against brief. But the damage is done. By that one sentence, the ASG has virtually destroyed the Kerala prosecution against the Italian marines. He will be the killers’ star witness to prove that the ship was not in Indian waters. Can he deny saying so to the Supreme Court? The murder case against the Italian marines is virtually over.
The ASG has deliberately torpedoed the case. The intriguing question is who made him do it? The ASG’s betrayal has confirmed the worst suspicions of informed Indians that the killers would go scot free. Who could have made the ASG disregard the defence and shipping ministers, external affairs ministry and the Kerala chief minister? The answer is obvious.