Kerala's Tryst with Italy
New York Times (India Ink)
Indian states, though powerful in matters of internal administration, rarely deal with foreign governments. A bizarre shooting near Kerala’s coast involving Italian marines last year, which killed two Indian fishermen, gave the state a crash course on international diplomacy, one that also tested Kerala’s political standing with the central government.
One year after the shooting, the case appears to be nearing a quiet conclusion in what could have been a messy international fight. Though the outcome may not completely satisfy Keralites, they are not likely to find fault with their government. Kerala fought for as long as it could to handle the case on its own turf, and its determination has strengthened the state’s position in domestic politics.
In the afternoon of Feb. 15, 2012, two impoverished fishermen, returning to the Kerala coast from an exhausting fishing expedition, were shot dead by two Italian marines who were guarding an oil tanker, the Enrica Lexie, on suspicion that the fishermen were pirates.
The Indian authorities say the Italian marines had behaved suspiciously on the fateful day. After the marines killed the two fishermen, their ship sped away, the authorities said, angering the Indian Coast Guard, which pursued the tanker and brought it to the Kochi port under escort.
The Italian authorities, on the other hand, say that the marines warned an approaching boat to keep away, and that when it did not, they had no choice but to fire warning shots into the air. Since the shooting took place in international waters, the ship was not obliged to come to the Indian shore and that the matter would have been investigated back in Italy, the Italian authorities say.
If Italy had admitted its marines had made a mistake and offered compensation out of court in the early days, the case would have ended long ago. But Italy insisted that there was a piracy attempt and that since the shooting took place in international waters, India had no jurisdiction to try the marines on murder charges in India.
Then Kerala’s courts intervened and affirmed jurisdiction. A judge later rejected an out-of-court settlement that the Italians had worked out with some local church leaders.
Emotions ran high in Kerala, accentuated by the suspicion that Italy's Delhi connections would let the marines off the hook at any time. The two Italians were lodged in prison first and then in a more comfortable guesthouse at the repeated requests of the Italian government at the highest level in Delhi. High-ranking Italian officials visited Kerala multiple times on behalf of the marines.
But Kerala’s courts maintained pressure, and it appeared that the case was moving toward a conviction. Then the Italian government filed a petition with the Supreme Court arguing that because the shooting occurred in international waters that the trial could not be held in India.
The chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, may have heaved a sigh of relief when the case was moved to the Supreme Court, but the shift initially caused much consternation in the fishing community in Kerala. The victims’ next of kin and the owner of the fishing boat were disappointed that the huge compensation that they had expected to receive through a direct settlement with the Italians or through a court order eluded them.
In fact, when the marines were allowed by the Kerala High Court to go home for Christmas after depositing 60 million rupees ($1.1 million) as surety, the local people were praying that they would not come back. The marines returned ahead of time, much to the disappointment of the next of kin.
Delhi took the line that the whole incident was an unfortunate accident, not involving any machinations by the Italians. It is in that direction that the case has moved.
Last month, the Supreme Court rejected Italy’s argument but ruled that the case should be moved out of Kerala and into a special Indian court under international maritime law. Since the shootings had happened in the contiguous zone and not territorial waters, Kerala had no jurisdiction, the Supreme Court said.
Even if the marines are ultimately convicted, it is likely they will return to Italy. On Monday, India announced that in November it had ratified a treaty with Italy, which was agreed upon before the shooting incident occurred, that allows citizens convicted of crimes in either country to serve their prison sentences in their home country.
Though it wasn’t the outcome it had sought, Kerala is taking a pragmatic view. Moving the legal battle from Kerala itself has brought down the profile of the case and the pressure of public opinion. Now, the state will accept any decision by the Supreme Court as long as adequate compensation is given to the next of kin and the boat owner.
The episode was not without its benefits for Kerala, which emerged with its principles intact. The central government never challenged Kerala, nor did it pressure the state to make concessions, and Mr. Chandy himself emerged as a tough negotiator and a champion of the law, which can only benefit the state in the future.
Ironically, the heroic efforts of the Italian government to get their nationals released from an Indian prison won the appreciation of many Indians, including Keralites. They pointed to the sustained efforts at the highest level by Italy to rescue the marines and criticized the Indian government for not doing enough for its own nationals in prisons abroad, accused of far less serious crimes.