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Italy issues ultimatum in marines death-penalty row

Indian interior ministry calls for anti-terrorism prosecution

05 February, 19:31
Italy issues ultimatum in marines death-penalty row (By Stefania Fumo) (ANSA) - Rome, February 5 - Italian Defence Minister Mario Mauro told lawmakers Wednesday that India should acquit two Italian marines accused of murder while in the line of duty off the coast there, or Italy's future in fighting piracy will be on the line. Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone are accused of killing two Indian fishermen after allegedly mistaking them for pirates and opening fire on their fishing trawler while guarding the privately owned Italian-flagged oil-tanker MT Enrica Lexie in international waters off the coast of Kerala on February 15, 2012.

"Italian participation in future NATO or EU anti-piracy missions is tied to the positive resolution of the legal case of the two marines, which should conclude with their honourable return home," Mauro told the joint parliamentary commission for foreign affairs and defence.

An Indian supreme court ruling on Italy's January 13 petition, which is expected February 10, "will have an impact on future scenarios," he added.

Italy has petitioned India's top court to rule out use of a harsh anti-terrorism law that calls for capital punishment in the event of a guilty verdict, and return the marines to Italy. Rome argued that prosecuting them under an anti-terrorism law de facto equates the incident with a terrorist act.

The Indian interior ministry has requested the marines be prosecuted under a severe anti-terrorism law but also told the attorney general's office not to press for the death penalty, according to press reports Wednesday.

Now the diplomatic and political hot potato has been passed to Indian prosecutor G.E. Vahanvati, who must quickly find a way to settle the interior ministry's seemingly conflicting requests.

Using the anti-terrorism law while not requesting capital punishment may be a way for the Indian authorities to keep jurisdiction of the case. Some legal experts have suggested India would lose its claim to jurisdiction over the killings, which took place outside its territorial waters, unless it used the anti-terrorism law.

But India says it has the right to try the Italians because the victims were Indians on board an Indian fishing boat, The Times of India newspaper reported.

There are also doubts about whether the anti-terrorism law can be applied without the death penalty being put on the table if the marines are found guilty. Italy's Lower House Speaker Laura Boldrini chimed in Wednesday, saying in a letter to her European Parliament counterpart that India's case against the marines threatens the rule of international law.

"While not wishing in any way to express myself on the merits of the court case, I believe that Italy - and, with it, Europe and the international community - must demand respect for international law and a rapid resolution of the case," Boldrini wrote to EP Speaker Martin Schulz.

She also reminded Schulz of comments by other EU officials, including warnings just one day earlier that India's attempts to prosecute the Italian marines may hurt efforts to fight piracy in future.

"The case is likely to have a negative impact on the EU's efforts and those around the world in the fight against piracy," EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton said in a letter Tuesday to European Parliament Deputy Speakers Gianni Pittella and Roberta Angelilli.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano also weighed in on the issue Wednesday.

"I am doing everything I can to promote an approach that is in the common interest of Europe as a whole. And this is because the two marines were not in India on an fishing trip, but on an international mission," Napolitano said in Strasbourg, where he spoke before the European Parliament Tuesday.

Ashton and German Ambassador to New Delhi Michael Steiner both expressed support for Rome in the case that has caused nearly two years of tensions between India and Italy.