On 15 February 2021, two Indian fishermen were shot dead by Italian marines sergeants Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the closure of criminal proceedings against two Italian marines who had shot dead two Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala in February 2012, bringing an end to an episode that has caused friction in the bilateral ties between India and Italy.
A vacation bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and MR Shah accepted the compensation of Rs 10 crore deposited by the Italian government and announced its verdict, “We are satisfied that the amount of 10 crores over and above ex gratia already submitted can be said to be a reasonable amount of compensation and in interest of heirs.
“We are of the view that this is a fit case to close all proceedings in India, including criminal proceedings, in exercise of powers under Article 142 of the Constitution. FIR 2/2012 quashed and set aside, and all proceedings therefrom are quashed.”
The bench added that as per the international arbitral award accepted by India, the Republic of Italy shall resume further investigation in the case, which is dubbed as the ‘Enrica Lexie’ case after the name of the Italian oil tanker, MV Enrica Lexie.
In its order, the apex court also said that out of the total amount (Rs 10 crore), Rs 4 crore each will be deposited in the name of the heirs of the two deceased fishermen and two crore will be given to owner of the fishing vessel, PTI reported.
India and Italy mutually agreed on the compensation amount on the basis of the award announced by an international tribunal.
What is the Enrica Lexie case?
On 15 February 2021, two Indian fishermen were shot dead by Italian marines sergeants Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre. The fishermen had been returning from the Lakshadweep islands and were 20 nautical miles off the coast of Kerala when the incident occurred.
Soon after, the Indian Coast Guard intercepted the Italian tanker and detained Girone and Latorre.
The proceedings began with the Kerala Police registering murder charges against them. The case was transferred to the NIA, which registered a case under the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA), the law which seeks to combat international terrorism.
Italy raised objections to the SUA charges against the marines and argued that the officers had taken the step because they had perceived the fishermen to pirates and were trying to “protect” the tanker. The marines assessed that the fishing vessel “was on a collision course with the MV Enrica Lexie and that this modus operandi was consistent with a pirate attack”, The Indian Express reported.
“It claimed that the fishing vessel continued to head towards the tanker despite sustained visual and auditory warnings, and the firing of warning shots into the water,” the report added.
Bilateral ties soured after India invoked the SUA law, as Italy stated that trial of the marines under its provisions would “amount to converting the incident as an act of terrorism”, a report by Eurasia Review noted. India then agreed to drop SUA and downgraded the charges against the two marines.
Italy and India also disagreed about the jurisdiction in the case.
“The question of ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘trial’ of the Italian marines, who killed the Indian fishermen, became a matter of dispute from the state of Kerala to the Supreme Court of India and then to the PCA at the Hague,” Eurasia Review reported.
The officers, Latorre and Girone, returned to Italy on 13 September, 2014 and 28 May, 2016, respectively.
How was the case settled?
In 2015, Italy began proceedings against India before an arbitration tribunal under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It filed a plea with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) seeking direction to India to not take any judicial step against the officers till the end of the tribunal’s proceedings.
India filed a plea asking the ITLOS to reject the submission. The plea was quoted by IE as saying, “The story told by Italy is as short and straightforward as it is misleading… (It) omits several crucial aspects which are the crux of the issue… (and) seriously distorts reality.”
On 21 May 2020, the tribunal unanimously held that Italy had violated provisions of the UNCLOS.
“However, the tribunal also held that the Italian marines ‘are entitled to immunity in relation to the acts that they committed during the incident, and that India is precluded from exercising its criminal jurisdiction over the Marines.’ Taking note of Italy’s commitment to resume criminal investigations into the St. Anthony firing incident, the tribunal directed India to take the necessary steps in order to cease the exercise its criminal jurisdiction over the Marines,” the Eurasia Review report said.
The tribunal also held that the marines “enjoyed diplomatic immunity” under the UNCLOS, and took note of Italy’s “commitment” to resume criminal investigations against the officers.
The tribunal’s award was notified by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on 2 July 2020.
How did the case impact India-Italy relations?
The case and the countries’ individual legal proceedings regarding it led to a series of fallouts between India and Italy till then-EAM Sushma Swaraj visited Italy in 2016.
Basant Gupta, India’s ambassador to Italy at that time, was quoted by The Wire as saying that “high-level contacts were frozen”.
“…no meetings of the Joint Commission or of defence officials took place. His own departure for Rome had been deferred, and Italy twice recalled its ambassador. In 2015 Italy blocked India’s admission into the Missile Technology Control Regime. It took a 2016 visit to Rome by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to soothe feathers,” the Wire report noted.
However, given the two countries’ economic positions in the world and respective regions (EU and South Asia), they decided to pull back from the hardline positions, the report concluded.
With inputs from PTI
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