Murder of Kerala fishermen: Italy brings out its 'big guns'

Italy is going into diplomatic overdrive, getting even the Vatican to bat for it, in its efforts to secure the release of two Italian Navy guards who are accused of killing two Kerala fisherman off the Kollam coast.

A full-scale diplomatic offensive by Rome is on to get the Indian government to secure the release of the two Navy guards without going through the due process of law in the killings, which are now being investigated by the Kerala police.

"The Italian government is working at every level with the Indian government,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said. “It's a dialogue between myself and the Foreign Minister, it's a dialogue with the other ministers at both Federal and State level.”

 Murder of Kerala fishermen: Italy brings out its big guns

A diplomatic tug-of-war is on between India and Italy. PTI

As part of the effort to influence the Indian government, Italy’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister will be in Delhi on Wednesday to meet Indian officials. Terzi himself is expected next week, and although his visit had been scheduled earlier, there are suggestions that he could now call off his visit – as part of the “pressure tactics” – unless the Navy guards, now in police custody, are released.

Media accounts suggest that even the Vatican has been roped in to prevail upon Catholic leaders in India to secure the release of the Navy guards after paying some compensation to the families of the fishermen who were killed.

But with Indian officials unyielding thus far and standing firm by their position that the law of the land ought to prevail, the stage is set for a diplomatic tussle between the two countries. And with Kerala opposition leaders invoking a specious Sonia Gandhi link to the episode, the issue has also acquired an emotive political edge to it.

Terzi raised the level of rhetoric on Tuesday by suggesting that in the estimation of the Italian government, the case was subject to “Italian jurisdiction.” Indian authorities had not for the moment accepted this position, he added, “but we will pursue all possible initiatives to resolve this problem."
Italian officials are also set to challenge before the Kerala High Court the FIR filed against the two Navy guards.

But the case has acquired a momentum of its own in Kerala, where a Special Investigation Team headed by Kochi Police Commissioner Ajith Kumar has been set up to investigate the case. A local court also issued a search warrant authorising police to search the Italian ship Enrica Lexia to seize the weapons that were used in the shooting..

Also on Tuesday, the family of one of the fishermen victims has moved the Kerala High Court seeking compensation of Rs 1 crore. They have also asked for the ship to be detained.

But former Indian diplomats and security analysts are urging caution on the Indian side too to ensure that the issue is not “ratcheted up” by invoking nationalist sentiments or by leveraging it for political gain.

Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, former director of the National Maritime Foundation, said that “creeping nationalism” shouldn’t become the operative issue, since domestic political games can cramp the space for diplomacy.

Former diplomat KC Singh notes that in fact, Italy sometimes has an unfair diplomatic disadvantage in India because of Sonia Gandhi’s Italian roots. “Italy gets no leeway at all, not even the options that are available to other European countries – like France.”

Singh said that a former Italian diplomat had told him that Italy “does not get the benefit of the doubt” with India, of the sorts that others get. India, he added, should “act responsibly and stop ratcheting a nationalist reponse.” In fact, he feels, “we should turn it around and look inwards” - and see whether any failings on the Indian side contributed to this tragedy.

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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2012 06:30:34 IST