Kerala murders: Italian minister returns empty-handed, marines still in Jail

Thiruvananthapuram: Italian names such as Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti are household names in the film-literate state capital of Kerala.

Now they are familiar with one more Italian name.

Stefan de Mistura. For a change, he is not a film maker, but the deputy foreign minister of  Italy.

Ever since two Italian naval guards were arrested for allegedly killing two fisherman on the Kerala coast by firing at them from an Italian ship Enrica Lexie, Mistura has been camping in India, mostly in Kerala.

The local media carried images of the nonchalant diplomat almost every day, either driving down to a hill town to meet the chief minister Oomen Chandy or zipping off to Kollam where a local court was hearing the case, before dashing off to Kochi where the guards were housed.

Steffan de Mistura

Deputy foreign minister of Italy, Stefan de Mistura, is heading back empty-handed. PTI

In between, he would go off to Delhi as well.

Mistura has been single-minded in his mission — somehow, get the Italians out of the country. He along with consular officials argued on the jurisdiction, UN convention and even diplomatic immunity; but when nothing worked, he did his best to get them all possible comforts while in police custody. His skills of sweet coercion and tough diplomatic-speak worked.

When the culprits were sent to central jail in Thiruvananthapuram on 5 March, he was in Delhi. He immediately rushed to the state capital. Once he realised that the Indian law had already been set in motion against his countrymen and that it was beyond any diplomatic redemption, his next aim was to get them out of the central jail.

He, along with the consular officials created high drama at the jail when the guards were taken to their cell. He wanted to see the cell and was willing to stay put, forgoing his status as a foreign minister and diplomatic protocols and privileges. Jail authorities had a tough time in handling him and finally he was shown a photo of the cell.

While the guards cooled their heels in the jail, Mistura talked tough, threw mild tantrums and finally pleaded. He just wanted to see them comfortably lodged in a guesthouse or police club before he left for Italy. After several attempts, he met the chief minister who was in the midst of a by-election, an assembly session and other busy daily politics. Mistura repeated his request to the chief minister again, arguing that the naval guards had not been sentenced and hence they should not be sent to jail.

Chandy told him that the second part of the argument doesn’t work because they are being tried under Indian law. However, he added that if the ADGP and the jail ADGP agree, the Italians could be shifted to an appropriate place outside the jail. It had nothing to do with him and was the prerogative of the jail authorities.

As Mistura leaves Thiruvananthapuram today, the guards are still in jail.

For two weeks since they were arrested for the murder of two fishermen on the Kerala coast, Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone had air-conditioned comforts of a CISF guest house in Kochi with polite local policemen standing guard.

But since they were sent to jail, things have become a bit difficult for the Italians.

Although lodged in a separate room, where two high profile local political leaders spent time recently, the Thiruvananthapuram Central Jail is something that the Italian navy guards want to get out from.

A former minister and a senior CPM leader stayed in the same cell before the Italians. The former minister, R Balakrishna Pillai spent his time in the cell on a one-year SC sentence on a graft case. The CPM leader, P Jayarajan, was sent there by the Kerala high court on a contempt case, but was freed early by the Supreme Court.

The Italians get their food from a local Italian restaurant. Local media reports said that they also eat chapati and vegetable curry prepared in the jail, and fruits.

Enquiries in Italy show that the country’s prime minister Mario Monti is still lobbying with the EU. Apparently EU now supports the argument that the Italian marines were not private defence contractors, but Italian military officials and hence they should be treated in international and military courts.

However, on Tuesday, union defence minister AK Antony made India’s position clear once again that “the government has no influence on the judiciary and the naval guards will have to go through the judicial process of the country,"

Their military officers being jailed in India is a big political issue in Italy. Foreign minister Giulio Terzi, who flew down to Delhi to discuss the issue with Krishna end of February, is under constant attack by the right wingers for “not being strong and tough” on India.

Mistura’s empty-handed return will not help matters get better. And Thiruvananthapuram will miss their daily dose of Italian fare.

Updated Date: Mar 14, 2012 14:21 PM

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