Murder of Kerala fishermen - Court room drama and ship raid today

Two petitions on the Kerala fisherman deaths will be heard in the Ernakulam high court , while Italian and Indian diplomats continue to wrangle about maritime laws and diplomatic immunity in Delhi.

G Pramod Kumar February 22, 2012 09:09:14 IST
Murder of Kerala fishermen - Court room drama and ship raid today

The outrage over the murder of two fishermen by naval guards aboard an Italian oil tanker near the Kollam coast in Kerala will partially play out in the Ernakulam high court on Wednesday, when two pleas, one by the family of one of the victims and the other, a caveat by the ship-owners, come up for hearing.

Meanwhile New Delhi will witness intense parleys between Italian diplomats, including a deputy foreign minister who has flown in exclusively for this purpose and their Indian counterparts. They will continue to wrangle over maritime and international laws, and diplomatic protocol.

The petition filed by Dora Valentine, the wife of one of the victims, before the high court,  asks for compensation of Rs. 1.01 crores; while the ship’s caveat has requested the court not to order a compensation without hearing them out. In her petition, Dora has also asked for a waiver of the court-fee of more than Rs. 8 lakh as she cannot afford it.

Murder of Kerala fishermen  Court room drama and ship raid today

Two petitions will come up for hearing in court today: Screengrab from CNN IBN

In her petition, Dora has said that the firing was an attack not only on the livelihood rights of the fishermen, but also the economic activity of the country. She says the incident happened a mere 14 km away from the shore, adding that there was no need for the Italian tanker to sail this close to the coast when nearby Alleppey had a bigger port to facilitate large vessels. The petition adds that the Enrica Lexie should have kept a distance of 36 km from the shore as even Indian ships have been directed to keep this distance.

It also states that the ship also did not follow procedures such as sounding warning alarms if they suspected the presence of pirates. If they had any suspicion, it says, they should have informed the Indian coast guard.

The plea by the ship reiterates the now-familiar argument of the Italians that the incident happened outside Indian controlled areas and hence Indian laws don’t apply. Some reports suggested that Italians may also deny any involvement in the incident. The hearing on this case will make clear the strategy of the Italians - if they deny any wrongdoing outright, or if they will choose to take shelter in diplomatic immunity, international maritime laws, and UN convention.

In the case of a denial, ballistic and forensic examination of the crime can establish that the fire indeed came from the Italian ship. Therefore the seizure and examination of the weapons suspected to be used for the firing is important.

The special investigation team (SIT) headed by the Ernakulam city police commissioner MR Ajith Kumar will search the Enrica Lexie on Wednesday to seize its weapons, which are reportedly kept in a sealed room in the ship. A first class magistrate in Kollam issued a warrant for the search and seizure on Tuesday. The warrant couldn’t be executed then however, since the ship couldn’t be brought to Kochi before Tuesday evening. The Italians are likely to oppose the move citing diplomatic and legal reasons. The SIT is supervised by an ace investigator, Additional Director General of Police Vinson M Paul.

The key questions that are likely to come up during the hearing as well as diplomatic parleys are the following:

Who ordered the firing? Analysts familiar with maritime procedures say that the guards couldn’t have fired without an order from a superior officer. If such an officer was absent, that will also indicate that the ship did not suspect any pirate activity in the area.

The Second question will be on the reason to fire at the fishermen, who were in a fishing boat and not in a speed boat. Additionally, there was no provocation from the fishing boat or fishermen because nine of its 11 occupants were sleeping at the time of the incident. Only two were awake and both of them got killed.

On the Italian argument regarding the distance from the shore, experts say that India has economic jurisdiction up to 100 nautical miles, which is India’s special economic zone used for activities such as fishing and oil exploration. Any attack on Indian properties and its people in this area is therefore illegal, they say.

Despite the grief and anger over the death of the fishermen and the outrage over Italian high handedness, people in the state are happy that the authorities have been able to locate the ship, seize it and bring the suspected perpetrators before Indian law. Had they delayed action, the Enrica Lexie would have easily slipped away without leaving any evidence. It is now anchored at mid-sea so that it doesn’t disrupt the functioning of the Kochi port.

People are however peeved over the special facilities provided to the arrested guards. The police has justified it citing security and diplomatic reasons. Both the guards are likely to be sent to the central prison in Thiruvananthapuram once the period for police custody is over. The police may also ask for an extension of their custody if they are needed for further investigation.

Reports also suggest that the Italian embassy is likely to fly in a senior team of lawyers from Delhi to argue the case in the Kochi high court.

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