March 21, 2013

Italians outside

First, the Kerala High court took marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone- accused of murder of two Indian fishermen- out of jail in Kerala and allowed them to go home to Italy for Christmas. As agreed between the court and the Italian consulate, the two returned later to continue their detention in India. Then, a couple of months later, the Indian Supreme Court allowed them to go home to Italy again, this time ostensibly to vote in the elections there. The difference was that this time they didn’t return to face trial for murder in India, and probably never will: the Italian government said this week that it won’t be sending them back.

The news sent the Indian media into its usual frenzy of simulated outrage, had the opposition flaying the government in Parliament (with Jaitley quoting my favourite from Goldfinger- three times is enemy action) and resulted in the Supreme Court putting what appeared to be foreign travel restrictions on the Italian envoy to the country; I wonder how that ties in with the tenets of diplomatic immunity. 

The uncharitable amongst us will say that it is not surprising that Italian killers are given special consideration in today’s India, and using Indian jails as a place to rest between picnics. A friend reminded me of Khushwant Singh’s joke from the Rajiv Gandhi and Quattrocchi days: A politician is bemoaning his recent lack of access to Gandhi, the Prime Minister, saying, “Things are different today. There are battalions outside and Italians inside”. 

Today the two Italians are outside.

I don’t buy the Italian government’s point that the Lexie was in international waters when the two marines shot at and killed fishermen Gelastine and Ajesh Binki mistaking them for pirates, or their assertion that the two marines should be tried in Italy. All evidence- documentary and otherwise- suggests this is hogwash, and points to a shooting that was probably the result of trigger happy soldiers who panicked when they spotted people of the wrong colour on a boat. As for the jurisdictional issue, the Indian authorities have insisted- backed by evidence- that the killings occurred in Indian waters, and that the Lexie had to be more or less forced to Kerala by the Indian Coast Guard. The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the killings took place in Indian waters and therefore the Central Government has jurisdiction over the incident. 

The new Italian Government says it is not sending the marines back to India since the country has not responded to requests for a diplomatic solution to the case, adding that it is now raising a dispute over jurisdiction under UNCLOS. That is hogwash, too; Italy could have raised the dispute internationally at any time, regardless of the location of the two marines. 

Actually, if truth be told, what stinks most in all this is India allowing the marines to repeatedly go back home while awaiting trial for murder. Combine this with the Italian government now refusing to send them back, and the whole episode begins to smell of a carefully but clumsily orchestrated conspiracy.
In any case, whose argument I buy- or don’t- is a moot point. The reality is that there was a diplomatic row between Italy and India over the incarceration of the two marines and it needed to be resolved diplomatically. The thing to be done, eventually, was to send the two marines to trial in Italy if the Italians were right; alternately, put them on trial in India if the Indian position was correct. Sending them for Christmas and elections (why the hell, in this century, could they have not voted from jail in India?) makes a mockery of India and its laws. 

It also sets a dangerous precedent. Will all foreigners arrested in India now have the right to go home for holidays, elections, shopping and weekend visits to pubs? What about Indians held in their own country? The colonial hang-up that seems to persist in the minds of so many Indians- especially those in government and such- is undoubtedly to blame for some of this mess. 

There is also the issue of fairness and reciprocity. The Captain Jasprit Chawla’s of our world suffer cold and bare prison cells, bad or inappropriate food, hostility and a singular lack of compassion even when the whole world- including supposedly powerful industry bodies- is screaming their innocence from the rooftops. The Latorre’s and Girone’s of the world- acknowledged killers – get special privileges in Indian jails (including Italian food). And are then set free without even the semblance of justice.

To those Indians in administration and government who allowed this to happen, I will only say that there is no point in India puffing itself up pretending to be an emerging power when its systems are circumvented with such blatant impunity by its own enemies within the gates. There is no use in trying to bask in the glory of five thousand years of Indian maritime heritage if, in the end, we are to allow the true inheritors of that legacy to be shot and killed without consequence. And it makes no sense, us screaming about being the world’s largest democracy, when we debilitate and compromise our systems ourselves, show a remarkable lack of spine and behave like a banana republic and a tin-pot dictatorship both rolled into one.


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