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Italy warns India of consequences if marines face death

Premier Letta holds snap meeting

10 January, 18:12
Italy warns India of consequences if marines face death (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, January 10 - Italy vowed 'countermeasures' Friday against India if reports were confirmed that the government there was considering the death penalty as a possible punishment for two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen. Only a day after official assurances to the contrary, Indian newspaper The Hindustan Times reported that India's anti-terrorist National Investigation Agency (NIA) was pressing to apply a severe 2002 law designed to fight terrorism in international waters against Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone. Under the law, capital punishment is a possible punishment.

The paper cited an unidentified, high-ranking government source as saying "there is an agreement" between government ministers to allow the move. Latorre and Girone are accused of killing Valentine (aka Gelastine) and Ajesh Binki on February 15, 2012, when the marines allegedly mistook them for pirates and opened fire on the Indians' fishing trawler from the privately owned Italian-flagged oil-tanker MT Enrica Lexie.

The shooting occurred just off the coast of Kerala in southern India, near traditional Indian fishing grounds in the Laccadive Sea.

The Italian government responded the reports of the pair facing the death penalty with a snap meeting, including Premier Enrico Letta and Foreign Minister Emma Bonino. Italian government envoy Staffan De Mistura said India reneging on its promises would be "unacceptable", and if they do, "we will take our countermeasures," without specifying what those would be. Italy's minister of defence blamed Indian politics for the report and vowed that Italy would stand by its marines. "It is clear that the election campaign in India is approaching in a bullying way. The Italian government will show the necessary firmness on the marines," Mario Mauro told Italian Radio Anch'io.

The Indian press report came one day after Indian and Italian government representatives said there was no chance that the two Italian marines would face the death penalty. De Mistura had even repeated assurances made earlier by India's foreign affairs minister, reiterating a longstanding guarantee from India that the death penalty will not be used in the controversial case. "The question of applying the death penalty to the marines has long been totally excluded, both in past statements by Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid," and the minister's more recent comments, said De Mistura Thursday. The CNN-IBM network in India reported Khurshid had repeated his assurances on Thursday, building on guarantees previously given by the Indian government. By Friday Indian Interior Minister Shushil Kumar Shinde said that no decision had been made on how to proceed in the case, but that there would be one "in the next two or three days".

The question of capital punishment for the marines hit the headlines again this week when the NIA applied for custody of the two marines, triggering fears that it may seek the death penalty. Last year, there were concerns about the NIA's involvement and fears it would try to apply the 2002 anti-terrorism law.

As a result, on Wednesday lawyers representing the marines had a hearing in their trial in New Delhi postponed until January 30, amid new fears that prosecutors wanted to press for capital punishment. De Mistura said at that time he would use the next few weeks to ensure that there is no doubt that capital punishment is excluded in the case.

Earlier in 2013, the government expressed optimism the pair would be home for Christmas.

But those hopes were thwarted by numerous legal snags. One of them occurred when the two marines, allowed a four-week parole to return to Italy to vote in the February 2013 general election, remained rather than returning to India as promised. The pair had earlier been permitted to come to Italy for Christmas 2012 and returned to India after the holidays.

After a drawn-out diplomatic row, Italy agreed to hand the men back to Indian authorities in March 2013 despite contesting India's right to jurisdiction, given the incident took place in international waters.