Italian marines: India is messing up its case by delays

By simply going back and forth between government, prosecution and the judiciary, India has wasted two years in trying the marines who shot two Kerala fishermen in 2012. We have undercut our own case by inexcusable delays

R Jagannathan February 19, 2014 17:42:08 IST
Italian marines: India is messing up its case by delays

If you want to know how to win a minor skirmish and then lose the war, especially a perception war, the case of the Italian marines who shot two fishermen off Kerala’s coast in February 2012 should be Exhibit A.

Italian marines India is messing up its case by delays

Associated Press

P Chidambaram may deny any policy paralysis, but the legal organs of the Indian state have exhibited extreme cases of paralysis in deciding the simple issue of framing charges against the two marines - Massimilliano Lattore and Salvatore Girone – who are being charged under the anti-piracy law. The two marines were aboard the Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie when they shot at some fishermen of the Kerala coast. They said they shot at them because they thought they were pirates.

Despite the need to back our own people against the Italians, who tried to deny India jurisdiction to try their marines, it is now difficult to deny Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino’s charge that the Indian authorities and the judiciary have exhibited a “manifest inability” to handle the case sensibly.

The two Italian marines have been charged under a stringent anti-piracy law when it should have been obvious to anyone that the marines can’t be called pirates. At best, we can accuse them of careless shooting resulting in murder, or culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The reason why the case in being tried here is because our fishermen were involved close to our waters - and India is the closest place to try the marines.

Why can’t we get a simple open-and-shut case to trial and closure within two years?

So, when the Indian ambassador in Rome is called by their foreign ministry and given a dressing down for the “inordinate delay” in the trial, which “shows an Indian desire to draw out the affair beyond all limits”, one can only hang our heads in shame. The criticism is well-deserved.

Italy has recalled its ambassador to India after the Supreme Court deferred a hearing of the case till 24 February, after Attorney General GE Vahanvati said that the law ministry’s opinion is awaited on the issue.

Does it take two years to figure out what to charge the marines with, how to try them and how soon?

It is worth recalling that right from the outset the Italians have maintained that their marines can be tried only under international law and in their own jurisdiction. We successfully fended off this contention, and the Supreme Court ensured we did not let this happen. Even when the marines were sent home for Christmas in December 2012 and the Italian government toyed with the idea of keeping them there, our courts intervened and got them back.

But the interminable delays of the government and the judicial system now make it more than likely that if Italy now takes this case to any international forum, we are sure to be rapped on the knuckles for delaying a simple matter endlessly.

This is not the first time India will look silly in the eyes of the world – for we have goofed up in other cases as well.

In May 2012, an arbitration tribunal in London blasted the Indian Supreme Court for delays in delivering justice to an Australian company which had sued Coal India Ltd over a 1990s dispute. The London-based International Arbitration Tribunal (IAT) ordered India to pay the Australian company, White Industries, around Rs 50 crore, but, as we noted at that time, the harshest indictment by the tribunal relates not to the dispute itself but the Indian legal system.

The tribunal flayed "the Indian judicial system's inability to deal with the issue in over nine years and the Supreme Court's inability to hear the appeal for over five years" and concluded that this "amounts to undue delay and constitutes a breach of India's obligation" under the Indo-Australia Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT).

If the government of India and the Supreme Court do not get their act together, India is setting itself up for another embarrassing put-down at some international forum shortly.

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