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India may drop terror charges against marines

Italy could resort to international arbitration

14 February, 17:25
India may drop terror charges against marines (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, February 14 - India may buckle to international pressure to drop terrorism charges against two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen two years ago, while Italy could take the knotty case to international arbitration.

A leading Indian daily reported that New Delhi is re-assessing the terror rap. The Indian Express said the government had decided the justice ministry should weigh charging Massimilano Latorre and Salvatore Girone under the country's penal code rather than the draconian SUA law, India's tough interpretation of an international treaty against terrorism and piracy framed after the infamous 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking when wheel-chair-bound American-Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer was shot dead and shoved into the Mediterranean.

New Delhi, which has already taken the SUA-mandated death penalty off the table, appears to be gradually ceding to pressure not just from Rome but from the European Union and the United Nations, according to news reports from Italy, India and Europe.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton raised the issue again with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday, while Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino saw United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

Under the headline "Law Ministry to examine if all SUA charges can be dropped," the Indian Express said: In an indication of a rethink on the contentious issue of charging two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast in February 2012 under the stringent Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation Act (SUA), 2002, the government Thursday decided to seek fresh legal opinion".

"Opinion is being sought on whether all charges under SUA can be dropped," it said.

According to The Indian Express, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid "favoured fresh reconsideration of the charge sheet, claiming the image of the country was taking a hit due to the impasse".

"Khurshid suggested the Law Ministry should be asked to look into the matter and suggest if only the Indian Penal Code can be invoked".

Bonino told the Italian parliament Thursday she would discuss the marines's human rights with UN rights chief Pillay, raising Rome's concern that Latorre and Girone had still not been charged two years after the shootings.

She also reported that UN chief Ban "assured me he would take action with the Indian authorities".

Earlier, Bonino had said she felt "great bitterness and perplexity" that Ban had initially said the case of the Italian marines was strictly a "bilateral" matter. Bonino argued that the situation "is not a question of a disagreement between two UN members but of a critical mass of countries raising a matter of fundamental principle".

Ban's position not only sparked anger in Italy, but reignited warnings that future participation in anti-piracy missions could be jeopardized if the matter is not resolved. On Wednesday Ashton warned that the case had implications for all Europe and for all efforts to combat piracy.

She was echoed by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said he was "personally concerned" the marines were facing terrorism charges. Rasmussen said the case could have "negative implications" for the fight against piracy EU countries have agreed to put further pressure on Ban over the pair, who have been awaiting charges for the alleged murder of Valentine (aka Gelastine) and Ajesh Binki after the marines reportedly opened 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.

"We now have the support of the European Union and NATO, the relationship is no longer limited to a bilateral dispute, the application of basic principles of the state of law is at stake," Bonino told parliament.

On Monday prosecutors in India told the supreme court they intended to charge Latorre and Girone for murder under the terms of a severe anti-terrorism law but stressed they would not seek the death penalty in the event of a conviction.

Instead, the pair could face a maximum of 10 years in jail.

However, Italy insists that their prosecution under the anti-terrorism law is unacceptable and warns that its application would equate the country to a terrorist state.

"They are neither terrorists nor pirates," Bonino said. The supreme court is expected to rule on the use of the anti-terrorism law on February 17.

The two marines have been living and working at the Italian embassy in India pending charges in the case that has stressed relations between India and Italy.

A long-awaited ruling on the charge is scheduled for Monday in New Delhi.

'ARBITRATION' OPTION MULLED.

The Italian government's task force on the marines accused of killing on Friday weighed the option of putting the case to international arbitration because of a dispute over where the incident took place, Defence Minister Mario Mauro said.

"We explored the hypothesis of (international) arbitration," Mauro told reporters on his way out of the meeting.

The ship from which marines Latorre and Girone fired the shots was in international waters, Italy contends.

India invoked a tough anti-piracy law that allows the extension of territorial waters in certain cases.

However, if the Indian government drops the SUA Act provisions and tries the pair under ordinary penal code, the issue of the waters would appear open to discussion again.

The task force reiterated that the Indian government risks damaging global efforts to fight piracy, as well worsening relations between Italy and India.

Indian must tread carefully, the Italian task force warned.

"The eventual action by the Indian the law on maritime security (would risk) impairing the dignity of Italy and the marines, and would have negative consequences in relations with India and in the global fight against piracy," said the task force.

BUT NEW DELHI SAYS 'WON'T CAVE TO INTERNAL PRESSURE'.

Indian authorities have ruled out the possibility that internal pressure or anger amongst the local population would influence the trial, a top prosecutor involved in the case told Italian State broadcaster Rai.

The government wants a "fair and just trial, and for justice to be done," said Deputy Prosecutor-General of India Mohàn Parasaràn. "The case will be closed as soon as possible, without delays," he added. "The Italians need to be certain that neither the government nor the High Court will be influenced by internal pressures".

"We would like to avoid giving the wrong impression about our legal system on an international level," Parasaràn added.

The case has become "a top-tier diplomatic matter" for India, the prosecutor said.

The government needs on the one hand to move ahead with its relations with Italy, and on the other with the sentiments of the people of Kerala, Parasaràn said, adding that the international pressure that the nation has been submitted to "are useless" in that India is already concerned about the effects the matter is having on bilateral relations with Italy. The situation in Kerala is delicate, and there could be issues of public unrest as the case unfolds, he said. "The government cannot give the impression that foreign citizens have preferential treatment", Parasaràn said. "Even so, we won't be influenced. We want to resolve this case as soon as possible".

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