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Italy warns India with marines facing terror charge

'Huge implications' for all countries says Ashton

10 February, 19:15
Italy warns India with marines facing terror charge (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Brussels, February 10 - Italy on Monday warned India on its plans to try two Italian marines accused of murdering two Indian fishermen two years ago under an international treaty against piracy and terrorism at sea in an Indian court.

Premier Enrico Letta and Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said that, even though the death penalty appeared to have been taken off the table and the marines would be facing a maximum of 10 years in jail, the invocation of the SUA Act was unacceptable.

Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone are in India awaiting charges for the murder of Valentine (aka Gelastine) and Ajesh Binki after opening fire on their fishing trawler while guarding the privately owned Italian-flagged oil-tanker MT Enrica Lexie off the coast of Kerala in February 2012.

A supreme court judge in New Delhi on Monday postponed a long-awaited ruling on whether to charge the pair under anti-terrorism provisions. The law carries the death penalty, but prosecutors say they would not seek it.

Bonino said she expected support from Monday's meeting of European Union foreign ministers on its bid to have the case put to the United Nations and the two marines swiftly returned home.

Italy will appeal to the UN if India applies the anti-terrorism law, Bonino said.

Diplomatic sources told ANSA there was also the likelihood that Rome might freeze a number of bilateral treaties being negotiated. "These are eventual roads, everything's on the table," said Bonino.

She said she was sure of "international and European" support in resolving the case.

Bonino said she was counting on "initiatives and words to intervene in this case, not only on a bilateral level but also at the level of the European Union as such" from the EU foreign ministers' meeting. She added that India's invocation of the 1988 anti-piracy and anti-terrorism Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Navigation, the SUA Convention, was "totally unacceptable".

"We've said that in every way," she said.

Bonino added that the presence of Defence Minister Mario Mauro in India to follow the marines' case was a "strong gesture".

Mauro condemned Indian authorities for failing to press charges so long after the incident. "It's at odds with the rule of law and the fairness of relations between two sovereign democracies," he told ANSA. Letta said "Italy and the European Union will react" after confirmation that the SUA Convention would be invoked.

"The charge sought by Indian authorities is unacceptable," Letta said on Twitter.

European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani said he would "do his all" to get a "strong reaction" from the EU on India's "unacceptable" decision.

Meanwhile, Vatican missionary news agency AsiaNews cited a "well-placed" source as saying the affair was unlikely to be resolved before India's general election in May. Going into the foreign ministers' meeting, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, said the case "affects all of Europe".

EU ministers "need to send a strong message" to New Delhi because measures to combat piracy and even terrorism taken by countries in Europe may be at stake in the case, she said.

Ashton said India's application of an anti-terror treaty to the case was "unacceptable".

Ashton used the term three times in a speech to the EU ministers, diplomatic sources said.

Ashton later told a press conference the case had "huge implications, not only for Italy but also for all the countries engaged in the anti-piracy fight".

The SUA Convention was a product of rising concern about hijackings in the 1980s.

A major catalyst was the 1985 hijacking by Palestinian militants of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro, during which an elderly, wheelchair-bound American-Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed and thrown into the Mediterranean. In November 1986 Austria, Egypt and Italy proposed that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) prepare a treaty.

It was adopted at a conference in Rome on 10 March, 1988 and came into force on 1 March 1992. The main purpose of the Convention is to ensure that appropriate action is taken against persons committing unlawful acts against ships. These include the seizure of ships by force; acts of violence against persons on board ships; and the placing of devices on board a ship which are likely to destroy or damage it.

The Convention obliges contracting governments either to extradite or prosecute alleged offenders.

As of 2013 the Convention has 161 signatories including 159 UN members, representing 94.7%of the gross tonnage of the world's merchant fleet.

In recent years it has largely been used against Somali pirates.