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Why Rome blinked
The two Italian marines have come back to face trial after some dithering. But it was the Supreme Court’s no-nonsense approach that forced Italy’s hands

The media headlines in last few weeks have spewed fire and brimstone at the Italian refusal to send its two marines to stand trial in an Indian court. The marines are accused of fatally shooting two Indian fishermen they mistook for pirates off the coast of southern India last year while on board a commercial Italian ship. The marines have now come back to India but not before stirring a storm in the diplomatic dovecotes of the two countries. Their return has to a great extent assuaged the incensed public feelings in India, and the media witterings too have sobered down from the earlier shrill pitch.

However, the dénouement, though it played out to India’s satisfaction in the end, was not without its climactic moments. Italy’s U-turn in initially refusing to send back the marines, ignited a public furore. The opposition political parties took the opportunity to lambast the government for allowing them to leave in the first place. With the political temperature ratcheting up, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was constrained to issue a stern warning saying that any attempt by Rome to obstruct India’s legal process by not returning the marines would “violate every rule of diplomatic discourse and call into question solemn commitments given by accredited representatives of a sovereign government to our Supreme Court … If they do not keep their word, there will be consequences for our relations with Italy.” The Supreme Court too started hearing a contempt-of-court petition against Italy’s Ambassador Daniele Mancini, and banned him from leaving the country–a move that sent a strong signal to the Italy. Eventually, bowing to pressure, Italy agreed to return Messrs. Latorre and Girone to stand trial in Indian courts. But the move came only after the Italian government received assurances from Indian government officials that the marines couldn’t be punished with the death penalty under Indian law. With the marines’ return, the case against Ambassador Mancini is likely to be dropped.

Now, that the diplomatic rumpus has abated, the Indian government must be breathing a heavy sigh of relief. Had the marines failed to turn up, it would have caused acute embarrasment to the government. It would have been very difficult for the government to fight off the perception of it being seen as “soft and weak-kneed” by other foreign powers. Already, the feeling of déjà vu was hard to miss when it seemed that Italy was not about to honour its commitment of sending the marines back. In the past as well, India has been hoisted with its own petards. Take the case of Union Carbide Corporation’s CEO Warren Anderson, who was similarly allowed to escape after being granted bail. He never returned from the US and the Indian government could just not bring itself to exert enough pressure for his extradition. Then there’s the famous case of Qttavio Quattroacchi of Bofors’ fame who despite being detained in Argentina could not be brought back home because of a desultory CBI approach. Even, Indian criminals have been able to thwart our laws by seeking refuge in safe havens abroad. From Dawood Ibrahim to the 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed, India has a dismal record in bringing fugitive criminals to book.

Now that the marines have returned, many are applauding the Congress leadership for its handling of the situation. The marines’ return could even give the embattled ruling party a small but palpable boost as it gets ready for national elections next year. In contrast, the handling of the dispute has not gone down well in Italy and is seen as a black mark on the 17-month-old outgoing technocrat government of Mario Monti, and has led to accusations that it has made Italy appear diplomatically weak. Already, Italy’s Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi has resigned over the issue.

Looking back, it seems that the tough stance adopted by the Supreme Court forced Italy’s hands. It’s another matter that many see it as a triumph of Indian diplomacy. But the real test of diplomacy will lie in bringing the marines’ case to a swift resolution without fraying the ties between India and Italy.

By:- Sayan Ghosh

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