Maritime Shooting Sparks India-Italy Standoff

Rome and New Delhi are facing a full-blown diplomatic crisis over two Italian Navy Marines personnel who mistakenly killed two local fishermen 23 nautical miles off the coast of India’s southern most state of Kerala.

The trouble began when Italian sailors on board the oil tanker Enrica Lexie sailing from Singapore to Egypt last week apparently mistook the unarmed Indian fishermen for Somali pirates and shot them dead. Authorities are still trying to sort out what exactly happened.

The incident has created a furor in polls-bound Kerala where the two have been charged with murder at a coastal police station. Complicating the already sensitive situation are assembly elections being currently held in in the state. There are fears that contending politicians are using the matter to whip up communal passions and might even influence the investigative outcome.

The captain of the Enrica Lexie insists that the sailors had encountered “five armed men and not unarmed fishermen” and that they had fired into the water and not at individuals. The Italians are also insisting that as the shooting occurred in what they describe as international waters on an Italian-flagged ship, the servicemen qualify as state officials who ought to be given diplomatic immunity. India maintains sovereignty over a 12-mile coastal zone although by international treaty foreign ships are allowed innocent passage.

The squabble between the two companies illustrates what many observers have feared about the dangers of such incidents as shipping companies have begun to post armed guards aboard ships for security. Italy changed its laws in August to allow Italian Navy Marines aboard its vessels. Other countries have begun to allow their merchant ships to hire private contractors, raising the specter of trigger-happy marksmen shooting before they fully identify what they are shooting at.

Rome has been emphatic that prosecution and investigation of the two marines should be conducted according to United Nations laws and not Indian ones as the presence of armed guards on board the ship corresponded to UN resolutions.

While Rome has been pushing for diplomatic immunity for the sailors, India has countered by stating that such cover is "state specific" and that a diplomat posted in one country cannot enjoy immunity in another. India has also emphasized that the crime was committed against an Indian vessel, even if it was in the "contiguous zone" (territory whose ownership is ambiguous) and that unarmed Indian fishermen were shot dead. Therefore it insists that the case falls under Indian jurisdiction and prosecution as per Indian laws. Delhi has also rejected the pirate claim, pointing out that the Kollam coast where the fishermen were killed is not infested with pirates.

The killing of the two fishermen is an “unpardonable crime,” said Kerala Shipping Minister G K Vasan. “Our waterfront is not infested by pirates. So it is an unpardonable crime to shoot innocent fishermen thinking they are pirates. There is no second opinion on whether to punish them for the act.”

The Italians have interpreted provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to offer their own inquiry. The Indian team, however, is of the firm view that the crime was against an Indian trawler involving unarmed fishermen and not naval ships. "Contacts and collaboration between the two governments are essential to establish the facts in the face of unilateral actions being undertaken by police authorities," the Ministry of External Affairs said.

India and Italy are now engaged in frenetic diplomatic talks to resolve the matter. The Italians are angry that the Indian police took "coercive" and "unilateral" action when it escorted the two sailors off the oil tanker and arrested them. It has also sought to quash the case in the Kerala High Court.

With the Italian sailors under a three-day police- and 14-day judicial custody, the impasse shows no signs of abating. Italy has gone into diplomatic overdrive, even requesting that the Vatican prevail upon Catholic leaders in India to attempt to secure the release of the Navy guards after paying some compensation to the fishermen’s families.

Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Staffan De Mistura has also flown from Rome to meet his Indian counterpart, Preneet Kaur and senior external affairs ministry officials. Both talked on Wednesday against the backdrop of the families of the killed fishermen filing suit against the Italian shipping company and seeking compensation of about US$20,000. They also demanded that the Italian ship be barred from leaving Kerala until the company pays the full compensation.

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, who was scheduled for a visit to New Delhi next week, has voiced his disenchantment with India over the handling of the issue. “There are currently considerable differences of a legal character. Up to now, I have not seen the cooperation between India and Italy that would be desirable and allow a quick resolution," he told reporters in Rome.

Rumors are swirling that Terzi might even call off his India visit (even though it had been planned earlier) to put pressure on India to release the sailors.

As the tiff acquires the overtones of jingoism, some voices are advocating caution.

“Both countries should desist from interpreting the episode in nationalistic terms,” said a newspaper editorial. It advised that the matter be resolved amicably through international law. Besides, in this age of technology and global positioning systems, it should not be difficult to establish the facts of the case, say experts. As the sailors fired at the fishermen mistaking them for pirates, their crime could not have been premeditated.”

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has publicly urged the Italians to cooperate even though Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has termed the incident as "cold-blooded murder" and promised "strict legal action".

However, with officials from both countries standing firm in terms of which law ought to prevail, the stage appears to be set for a protracted diplomatic drama. It just might even escalate further with Kerala opposition leaders invoking a phantom link to the ruling UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who is an Italian.

Be that as it may, Indian diplomats are urging caution to ensure that the issue is not “ratcheted up” by invoking nationalist sentiments or by leveraging it for political gain.

Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, former director of the National Maritime Foundation said on TV that “creeping nationalism” shouldn’t be allowed to overwhelm the proceedings and nor should domestic political games be allowed to “cramp the space for diplomacy”.

Former diplomat KC Singh observed that in fact, Italy sometimes has an unfair diplomatic disadvantage in India because of Sonia Gandhi’s Italian roots. “Italy gets no leeway at all, not even the options that are available to other European countries – like France.”

Singh said that a former Italian diplomat had told him that Italy “does not get the benefit of the doubt” with India, of the sorts that others get. India, he added, should “act responsibly and stop ratcheting a nationalist response.” He said that “we should turn it around and look inwards” to see whether any failings on the Indian side contributed to the tragedy.