India won a diplomatic coup on Friday as two Italian marines returned to India to stand trial for allegedly shooting two fishermen off the coast of Kerala last winter. The incident, in which the marines, hired as private security to an Italian oil tanker, say they mistook the men to be pirates, has been the source of escalating tension between the two nations for the past year but came to a head last week, when the marines returned for what was slated to be a temporary visit to Italy but Rome said they would not be going back.
On Thursday, the Italian government finally agreed to send them back after gaining the assurance from New Delhi that they would not face the death penalty. It ended a dicey few weeks for the Congress-led government — and for Indian-Italian ties. The marines, who had been out on bail in India awaiting trial, have come and gone before since their arrest last year, when India allowed them to go home for Christmas. When India’s Supreme Court allowed them to return home again to vote in their country’s elections last month, the Italian ambassador to India, Daniele Mancini, acted as a guarantor in the High Court that they would go back by March 22. When Rome decided that they were not to be returned and Mr. Mancini informed the court as such, India’s High Court put a ban on his leaving the country, alerting airports to look out for him, and denied his appeal for diplomatic immunity.
The move did not go down well in Italy nor in India, where the opposition took the opportunity to lambast the government for allowing them to leave in the first place. But Congress leaders stood their ground. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued 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.” Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi too came out strongly against Italy, where she was born and raised, saying no nation should take India for granted.
Rome’s agreement to return the marines on Thursday sparked outcries in Italy, where some have said that the government, reeling from the European financial crisis, was unwilling to alienate a trade partner. The row between the two nations began last year after the shooting on Feb. 15, 2012, when the governments disagreed where the marines should be tried. Italy has maintained that the shooting took place in international waters, where, if there is a crime, the accused are supposed to be tried in the country the vessel is flagged in. India, however, has insisted the shooting took place in a special economic zone, and the men should therefore be tried in India.
Many in India have applauded Congress leadership for the marines’ return, giving the embattled ruling party a small but palpable boost as it gets ready for national elections slated for next year.