Ashok Tuteja, Tribune News Service
New Delhi, March 12. A huge diplomatic row erupted between India and Italy today with New Delhi strongly asking Rome to send the two Italian marines back to India and face trial in this country for the murder of two persons off the Kerala coast last year.
Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai summoned Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini to the foreign office and told him in unambiguous terms that the position taken by Italy was not acceptable to India. “I have told the Italian envoy that as far as we are concerned, Italy is obliged to ensure that the marines return to India within the stipulated period (four weeks) as per the terms of the Supreme Court order,” Mathai told reporters after the half-an-hour meeting.
Asked what was the response of the envoy, the Foreign Secretary said he simply took note of the position taken by New Delhi and said he would convey it to his government. The envoy was told that New Delhi expected Italy as a country which is committed to the rule of law to fulfil the sovereign undertaking given by it to the apex court.
As the BJP and Left parties pounced on the government for mishandling the entire issue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told agitated MPs from Kerala that Italy’s decision was ‘unacceptable’ and New Delhi would “do whatever needs to be done” to bring back the two marines.
“This is betrayal and bluff by the Italian government. It is a breach of trust between two sovereign nations and the act is completely unacceptable,” BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy said.
It seems New Delhi has no clear answers on the controversy. Italy’s refusal to send back the marines has come as a rude shock to it. Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had conveyed to the UPA government his fears that the marines might not return to India to face trial.
The two marines, Massimilano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, who were on the Italian ship MV Enrica Lexie, had shot down two persons on an Indian vessel, St Antony, mistaking them for sea pirates, off the Kerala coast in February last year.
Italy and India have long disagreed on where the two should face trial, an issue that has frayed bilateral relations.
Italy argues that they should be tried under UN laws while India contends that it has jurisdiction over the case since the crime was committed in Indian waters.
The Supreme Court had allowed the two marines to fly to Italy to vote in the February 24-25 elections after an undertaking given by the Italian envoy that they would return to India within four weeks. Earlier also, the two marines had gone to Italy for celebrating Christmas with their families.
It is understood that the envoy had given an affidavit in the apex court, saying that the two marines were not entitled to cast their votes in their present circumstances and that they have to travel to Italy for the purpose.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said the government was examining the letter received from Rome late last night. “I know it’s a Supreme Court’s decision but it’s also a matter of our country’s collective decision. We can’t pass the ball on to anybody. Let’s just read what is said. Let’s understand their position and we will respond,” said Khurshid.