A raging international controversy followed, raised by Italy and backed by European Union, which accused India of breaching international convention obligations by arresting the two Marines, who rather curiously in broad day light presumed a small fishing boat 100 metres away from the oil tanker to be a pirate vessel and opened fire at its 11 occupants apprehending an imminent piracy attack.
If soldiers holding similar perceptions of what constituted imminent threat and danger get posted at Indo-Pak or India-China borders, their actions are sure to trigger a full-scale war between neighbouring countries imperilling millions of lives.
The same European Union, down to its football players, recently expressed solidarity with ‘Black Lives Matter’ protesting through kneel downs to express their horror over the unjustified and excessive use of force by police resulting in the death of George Floyd. There was revulsion over the police tendency to use excessive force in a racially discriminatory manner. The “no Justice, no peace” rallies demanded stringent action against the police officers who snuffed the life out of a black man, who had a history of serving prison for crimes.
But, eight years ago, they did not take into consideration wanton use of weapons by Marines against south Indian fishermen merely on suspicion that they could be pirates. Was it a case of racial discrimination? Should there be no cry for justice for 44-year-old Valentine @ Jalestine and 20-year-old Ajeesh whose lives were snuffed out by two trigger-happy Marines? Or, is it that the lives of dark-skinned fishermen from Kerala did not matter?
With EU support, Italy upped the ante. Latorre and Girone challenged their arrest before Kerala HC, which on May 29, 2012 dismissed their petitions saying, “freedom of navigation does not mean that the vessels have absolute rights or freedom to navigate through the seas unconcerned about the rights of others.” It held that India rightly exercised penal law jurisdiction over the crime that took place off Kerala coast.
When the matter was pending in HC, the Italian government paid Rs 1 crore each to the families of the two dead fishermen. The kin withdrew their claims. When the legality of ‘blood money’ was questioned, Italy clarified that it was a ‘goodwill gesture’. With Doramma, widow of Valentine, given a compassionate employment by Kerala government in addition to both Kerala and Tamil Nadu paying Rs 5 lakhs each to the two families, the kin lost interest to pursue remedy against Italy or the Marines.
Italy and the Marines then moved the SC. When the matter was pending, SC had allowed the Marines to spend 2012 Christmas in their home country by granting furloughs. In January 2013, the SC held that only the Union government had jurisdiction over the crime and not Kerala police. It directed the setting up of a special court for trial of the two Marines, even as the Centre assigned the probe to the National Investigation Agency.
After the judgment, the SC allowed the two Marines to go to Italy for casting votes on ambassador Daniel Mancini’s personal guarantee for their return. Italy reneged and said it would not return the Marines. A furious SC restrained Mancini from travelling out of India.
On March 13, 2013, ex-foreign minister and MP Jaswant Singh in Parliament termed the situation as “a very curious Italian job”. He asked, “Would Indian citizens similarly imprisoned be permitted to go home for Diwali, Holi or Ramzan? This would not be permitted. Why was this done in this case? Was it done simply because they are Italian Marines?… I am impressed by the desire of these Marines to go and vote in Italian elections. Do they permit a similar treatment to criminals of Indian origin? … Why was the special treatment given to these Marines?”
Following this, the UPA government under Manmohan Singh exerted enough pressure on the Italian government. This coupled with the tough stand of SC against the Italian ambassador, even rejecting his diplomatic immunity plea, forced the return of the two Marines back to India.
In September 2014, Latorre was allowed to go to Italy for treatment after he suffered a brain stroke. Medical certificates were periodically produced in the Supreme Court to get his furlough extended time and again till Italy moved the International Tribunal on the Law of Sea (ITLOS). An interim direction from ITLOS for repatriation of Girone was honoured by the SC on May 26, 2016.
As per ITLOS, the investigation into the February 15, 2012 incident would be done afresh by Italian authorities and that the two marines enjoyed immunity from Indian penal laws and jurisdiction of Indian courts. The outcome of the investigation and prosecution of the two marines will show to the world the fairness of the criminal justice system prevalent in Italy and the sensitivity of European countries not only to ‘black lives matter’ but also to “Indian lives matter”.