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The state of Kerala has been seized with a sense of foreboding as it watches the political drama being enacted in Delhi over the Italian government reneging on its promise to send back the two marines facing a trial for murder here. Many Keralites took the “we-told-you-this-would-happen” stand even as there was a growing swell of voices on TV and elsewhere calling for the arrest of Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini who stood surety for the two marines. Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone had been security aboard the Italian oil tanker Erica Lexie and had fired at the fishing boat St Anthony, mistaking the fishermen for pirates some 20 nautical miles off the coast of Kerala on February 15, 2012. Valentine aka Jelastine (45) and Ajeesh Pink (25) were killed instantly.
The 2.5 crore-strong fish workers’ and boat owners’ community—influential India-wide—has now come together and threatened to block all international vessels coming to the coast of India from Mumbai to Kerala and all around if the marines are not back by March 22, the date allowed by the Supreme Court. P.P. John, general secretary of the Kerala Independent Fish Workers Federation, is livid. “There are 436 Indian nationals reportedly languishing in Italian jails which include fishermen and not one was allowed to come and vote for the general elections in India. These criminals have challenged the laws of this land and they should be brought back and made to face trial,” he says.
Fr Rajesh Martin, a relative of Valentine and director of the Quilon Social Service Society, has been involved with the case from the outset. As he puts it, “We knew this was bound to happen. Right from the beginning, from the time of filing of the FIR, everything was crafted to favour the Italians and to take the case out of Kerala’s jurisdiction. At the time, we felt the Kerala government understood our grievances and was supporting us (Valentine’s wife Doramma was even given a government job, as a peon). But now....”
“We knew it. Right from the start, everything was crafted to favour the Italians, and to take the case out of Kerala’s jurisdiction.”
Legal and political sources familiar with the case say from the beginning the investigating agencies—in collusion with the Centre—were not keen to take stringent action. C. Unnikrishnan, Doramma’s lawyer in the HC, says, “The tampered voyage data recorder was not seized, the ship was not taken into custody as a vehicle used for murder and even applicable laws were not invoked against the accused. The investigating agencies could have easily invoked the Maritime Zone Act and Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Activity but they did not.” Unnikrishnan points out that it was a “clear case of piracy” by the marines aboard the Erica Lexie. Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea says that piracy is: any illegal acts of violence committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship on the high seas against another ship (in this case, fishing vessel St Anthony), or against persons or property on board such ship; against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state. Interestingly, under the Suppression of Unlawful Acts, the penalty for murder on the high seas is death.
“At some point,” says Fr Martin, “we felt it was totally useless to plead with the investigating agencies. So we filed an admiralty case for compensation and settled it out of court. At least that way the families got Rs 1 crore each or they would not have anything now. There was no case against the ship captain, which immediately nullified any insurance claims.” On January 18, the SC ruled that Kerala had no right to try the Italian marines because it took place outside the state’s territory. The apex court interpreted the place of incidence as in Indian waters and hence directed the Centre to constitute a special court for a fresh trial. That is yet to happen.
In order to protect itself, the Italy government asked the families to sign a contract stating that the aggrieved will not move any court of law against them and will withdraw any pending cases—a clear violation of the Contract Act under Indian law. Says BJP state president V. Muraleedharan, “The Italian officials gave blood money which is totally unacceptable. And the government of India clandestinely helped the marines go scot-free. The ambassador had offered himself as surety for the marines’ return so his diplomatic immunity should be cancelled and he should be arrested.” Echoing the sentiment, secretary of the National Fish Workers forum, T. Peter, adds, “The government does not have the guts to do so. We want to know why Sonia Gandhi has not spoken out for the poor of this country. Why is her mouth sealed?”
Meanwhile, the 12-lakh-strong fishing community in Kerala are a restive lot. They say they have always been considered the first line of defence on the coast for they are the ones who report any kind of illegal activity to the coastguard. But here, instead of protecting them, the government has blatantly helped the criminals, they allege. As John puts it, “We fishermen face utter darkness out in the ocean with no security from our own country. Here two fishermen had gone into the seas to earn a living and they were shot dead and the criminals were let off. It is a challenge to every Indian. Nowhere in the world does the law allow people to get away with murder.”
So what do the families of the victim think about the whole mess? Valentine’s wife Doramma says she wants “the marines brought back to India and tried by our laws”. It is to be seen if she will be persuaded to file a contempt of court against the Italian ambassador. Is Doramma willing, was the question on everyone’s lips? That said, even if she doesn’t, there are many others in Kerala who will, for the general mood among most Malayalis is that this act of the Italians is clearly an affront to their state, the SC, the nation and its 1.2 billion people.