India-Italy ties have been in a tailspin ever since the arrest of Italian marines for murdering two Indian fishermen, off the coast of Kerala in 2012.
The situation has not eased with India determined to ensure that justice is done for the families of the fishermen, and Italy insisting that the incident took place in international waters and the marines be tried under Italian law in their own country.
After years of wrangling, the case went up to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague last year. The foreign ministry in Rome has said that the UN Court has ruled that Salvatore Girone, one of the marines who is now spending his days at the Italian mission in the capital, can return home. The other marine, Massimiliano Latorre, suffered a stroke while in India and was allowed to travel back home on health grounds in 2014.
The Italian government which has received much flak from both the opposition and the general public for not being able to protect its own, is relieved Girone can return home and await the final verdict of the UN tribunal.
The arbitral tribunal has merely given a ruling on bail and not on the actual issue, which is whether the case will be tried in India or Italy. Yet, India seems to be on the defensive. Insisting again and again that India's Supreme Court will have the final word. That is true, but the bail to Girone cannot be denied either.
"We believe that government's consistent positions and key arguments in this particular case have been recognised by the tribunal. The authority of the Supreme Court has been upheld. We remain confident that the issue of jurisdiction will be determined in our favour," MEA spokesman Vikas Swarup said in a statement released on Monday evening.
According to the statement, the arbitral tribunal's simple order was to further relax bail conditions of Girone. But the decision on his bail would be the prerogative of India's Supreme Court. The order recognises that "Girone is under India's authority alone" and that "the Supreme Court of India exercises jurisdiction over him", the MEA statement said. The two countries have been asked to approach the SC for relaxation of bails with conditions put down by the Indian court.
The condition for his return to Italy is subject to Rome's guarantee that he will come back when he is recquired here. He will further have to report periodically to any authority in Italy to be laid down by the Supreme Court. Girone will also have to surrender his passport and not leave Italy while he is on bail. He can travel only when the Indian court gives him permission. These are guarantees that Rome has to give.
Every three months Rome will have to report on Girone's whereabouts.
Italy has already indicated that if Girone is allowed to travel back home, "he will remain under the jurisdiction of the courts of India."
The arbitral tribunal has been approached to decide on the simple question on whether India or Italy has the jurisdiction to try the two marines. The trial of the marines will begin only after the tribunal decides which country has the legal right to do so. Italy insists that the MV Enrica Lexie, the oil tanker which was guarded by the two marines, was on international waters when the marines opened fire on the Indian fishermen. Two Indian nationals were fired upon as the marines believed they were pirates.
Since that incident, there was outrage in India over the "murder" of its fishermen.
These four years had been spent on arguments between the two countries on where exactly the shooting took place. India insists it is in its territorial waters and so it has the right to try the two marines. India calls it a cold-blooded murder as one of the victims was shot in the head and the other in the stomach.
It was clearly a question of misunderstanding. The Italian marines insist that they had issued necessary warnings before shooting.
It is possible that the language barrier played a part and the unfortunate fishermen did not understand the command. The incident happened at a time when Somali pirates unleashed a reign of terror in international waters. Merchant ships were hijacked and huge ransoms demanded for the release of the personnel on board. The situation was so bad that ships had sailed with armed escorts. Girone and Lattore were escorts for the oil tanker.
Incidents of hijacking have come down drastically following joint patrols and action by national navies.
The incident caused a furore both in India and in Italy. In Kerala, there was outrage that unarmed fishermen could be arbitarirly gunned down while fishing on coastal waters. There were protests by fishermen and calls for the arrest and trial of the two marines.
The Italian government faced similar outrage at what was considered high-handed action against the marines. The matter should have been solved quickly without allowing sentiments to cloud political judgment and letting it flare into a highly emotional nationalist issue. As a result, relations between India and Italy have taken a nosedive.
Updated Date: May 03, 2016 12:38 PM