In response to the sudden u-turn by the Italian government by refusal to return of the naval guards, charged with killing of two Indian fishermen last year, India's Ministry of External Affairs summoned the Italian Ambassador, Daniele Mancini, to convey India's position in the "strongest of terms", which is diplomatic parlance for a stiff lecture.
The two naval guards - Massimiliano Lattore and Salvatore Girone - charged with homicide for killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast in February 2012, were permitted by the Supreme Court Feb 22 to proceed to Italy for four weeks for voting in its national elections. The court had allowed them to travel to Italy and return to India by the end of a four-week deadline.
Summoning of the Italian ambassador came a day after the Italian foreign ministry refused the return of the two naval guards, accusing Indian authorities of violating international rights by detaining the naval guards and said it was "open" to let an international arbitrator to assess the case. It would be recalled that both guards were arrested after they shot and killed two Indian fishermen, off the coast in Kerala, Feb 15, 2012, whilst on duty on the Italian flagged merchant vessel Enrica Lexie.
Most of the press coverage on the issue missed the fact that at the heart of the incident lies the issue of piracy. As pirates operated out of Somalia, the shippers were advised to hug the Indian coast when transiting to and from the Persian Gulf. This took them through Indian fishing grounds and in February 2012, the Enrica Lexie encountered Indian fishermen, who were perceived to be pirates, who were fired upon and killed. In response, the Indian Coast Guard then chased down the merchant ship and arrested the two marines, who were held in Kerala for trial and subsequently shifted to New Delhi for trials by a special court, as per Supreme Court directives.
Without doubt, the implementation of anti-piracy measures has been challenging. It is well known that pirates morphed from fishermen whose grounds were encroached upon and ended up resorting to the much more lucrative piracy business. In response, navies and coast guards took up the cause with loosely coordinated patrols. The pirates' response was to gain better intelligence and use mother ships to extend their reach by hundreds of miles. As an antidote, armed guards have appeared on commercial vessels. Most guards are from private maritime security companies, and some from host militaries. This was the case in Italy, where Italian marines served aboard Italian flagged carriers. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of commercial carriers transiting the Indian Ocean region now have armed guards, which can give rise to more such unresolved issues of regulation and law.
At present, the sense of shock from all stakeholders in India stems from the fact that Italy as a country has reneged on its commitment to fulfil the sovereign undertaking given by it to the Supreme Court of India. The Italian u-turn comes at a time when India is already pressuring Italy to part information on the bribery scam in the Agusta Westland VVIP helicopter deal. As a result, Indo-Italian relations will remain turbulent in the near future.
The entire saga has a different interpretation from the Italian side. Italian foreign ministry sources were qouted as saying that India had not responded to its requests to seek a diplomatic solution to the case. The Italian foreign ministry statement Monday also said India's decision to hold trial of the marines in that country violated their rights under international law as they need to be tried in their home country.
However, the view in India is that the incident of firing from the Italian vessel on the Indian fishermen having occurred within the Indian maritime jurisdiction, the Union of India is entitled to prosecute the two Italian marines under the criminal justice system prevalent in the country. Such arguments and counter arguments are expected to continue.
Indeed, the pirates of Somalia, apart from raking in millions of dollars in ransom and wreaking havoc on international shipping routes, have now started to make an unanticipated brunt on international relations. This is indeed very startling. Who knows, what they will impact next?
(Neil Gadihoke is a retired commander of the Indian Navy who is a researcher and analyst on security and maritime issues with the Society for Policy Studies (SPS). He can be contacted at email@example.com)