The Indian government has changed its stand on the marines issue at least half a dozen times.
So, it comes as no surprise that the two Italian marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone — who were arrested off the Kerala coast two years ago after they had shot dead two poor fishermen – are still under detention in India, with their cases progressing very very slowly.
They are, though, not in a regular jail, but in the Italian Embassy in New Delhi — under house arrest of sorts.
After Rome’s protest and the Italian Ambassador leaving India, New Delhi agreed that it would not seek death penalty for the marines. However, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs will now prosecute them under the stringent Suppression of Unlawful Activities Act (SUA).
Rome has now written to New Delhi saying that trying the marines under this Act will in, other words, mean declaring Italy a terrorist state. Italy has also urged the European Union and the US to condemn India.
While in this election year, any concession to the marines will be seen as weak foreign policy, the Indian government has changed its stand on the marines issue at least half a dozen times.
India now insists that the trial will be held in the country, and the marines will be charged under SUA, and if convicted, the men will be in prison for 10 years.
Italy’s new Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has said that the marines’ case will be his priority.
But with India and its political parties tied down to the upcoming elections, the case may not be decided so quickly.
Also, if any leniency is shown to these men, parties other than the Congress will have a field day linking Sonia Gandhi’s (president of the Congress Party) Italian origins to the case. This is something that the Congress may not wish to add to its long list of troubles.
As much as India has been slipping up on this case – like allowing the marines to go home for Christmas and the indecision over the charge that needed to be slapped against them – Rome cannot expect New Delhi not to abide by Indian laws.
Under the Indian judicial system, death penalty can be awarded to the marines.
The moot point here is, would Italy have dared to ask, for instance, Saudi Arabia for the kind of privileges it has been demanding from India. The marines are not even in a regular jail, but are living comfortably in the Italian Embassy.
As one writer boldly put it, the Indian legal system has been made to look like a clown on an international stage.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]