08 April 2013 National varanasi: italians in jail

The Other Italians

The marines aren’t the only Italians in jail, two backpackers languish in Varanasi
The Other Italians
Sushant Mukherjee
The Other Italians

It’s likely that you are by now familiar with the names of Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone. The two Italian marines, who are now under house arrest at the Italian emb­assy in New Delhi, had been at the centre of a high-stakes diplomatic fracas bet­ween India and Italy. Arrested for the killing of two fishermen off the coast of Kerala, they had earned a month-long privileged sortie to go and vote in their country’s general elections on the und­ertaking of their ambassador Daniele Mancini. The Italian government, however, reneged on that promise, initially refusing to send them back. They did so only after the stern response of both the Indian government and the apex court.

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You are less likely to know of Tomaso Bruno and Elisabetta Boncompagni­—two other Italians languishing in the Vara­nasi district jail since February 2010. Unlike the marines who went to Italy to vote, they had to contend themselves with postal ballots delivered to them by a diplomat from the embassy. Far from the attention the marines have garnered, Tomaso and Elisabetta’s case has attracted no media glare.

The two backpackers had been senten­ced to life imprisonment by a trial court in Varanasi in July 2011 for their alleged role in the murder of fellow Ita­lian and co-traveller Franceso Mon­tis. While the Allahabad High Court had in September last year dismissed the appeal their parents had filed against the decision, the Supreme Court has now accepted their plea to have this order reviewed. It will be heard in early September.

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Unlike the marines who went to Italy to vote, Tomaso and Elisabetta had postal ballots delivered to them.

Francesco, 30, was in a relationship with Elisabetta, 40 and they were on an India trip with their friend Tomaso, 30. Having covered iconic Indian destinations like Goa and Kerala, the three friends from London were in Vara­nasi, sharing a room at the Hotel Buddha in the centre of town, a few kilometres away from the Dasa­swamedh Ghat. Something went wrong. On the morning of February 4, 2009, Francesco was brought dead to a Varanasi hospital by Tomaso and Elisabetta, along with two other hotel employees. A post-mortem condu­cted the day after found that Fra­ncesco had died of “asphyxia as a result of strangulation”, a finding confirmed by a second post-mortem. Three days later, Tomaso and Elisabetta were arrested.

They were convicted based on circumstantial evidence and their failure to prove that they had been away from the hotel room in the early morning hours of the day Francesco died, presumably where and when he was attacked. Wit­ness testimony from a hotel waiter even suggested that Elisabetta and Tomaso had developed a mutual liking and they were seen “hugging, kissing and cuddling” the evening before at the hotel restaurant “while the third tourist (Francesco, who Elisa­betta was originally in a relationship with) looked subdued”.

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However, the two tourists and their parents deny that Elisabetta and Tomaso conspired to kill­ Francesco. According to them, they had stepped out at 4 am on that day to watch the sun rise over the Ganga and returned at 8 am. They had left Francesco sleeping in the room, as he was not feeling well, and locked it from outside. On their return, they found him unconscious and Elisabetta called the hotel reception for help. The two took Francesco to a local hospital along with some staff. Francesco, the two claim, died on the way to the hospital.

Tomaso and Elisabetta

“The two had their passports with them,” says Tomaso’s mother Marina Maurizio. “They could have fled if they had killed him. Why would they take him to hospital instead?” A real estate broker in Albenga, Marina is in the city with her husband Luigi Bruno, an insurance agent, and Elisabetta’s father Rom­ano Boncompagni, a retired army personnel from Turin. And she is the only one among the three to speak English.

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A missing piece in the story is the hot­el’s CCTV footage, something the investigating officers found to be “useless”. The hotel manager, based on his viewing of the CCTV monitor that night, testified that he saw nobody enter their room during those hours. The footage was not produced in court as evidence during the trial. The lawyers of Tomaso and Elisabetta did not make any requ­est for the CCTV footage to be produced in court, but claim it may contain proof of  their innocence. Gopal Chaturvedi, the defence lawyer for their appeal at the Allahabad High Court, told Outlook that the “best evidence (the CCTV footage) had been deliberately withheld by the prosecution”. However, Anil Kumar Singh, the public prosecutor at the trial court, says, “They preferred to keep sil­ent and it was poisonous for them.”

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“The two had their passports with them,” says Tomaso’s mother. “They could have fled had they killed Francesco. But they took him to hospital.”

Having travelled across India’s Golden Triangle in 2006, Marina and Luigi had never expected to become frequent travellers to India. Unable to call her son or have him call them from jail, Tomaso’s mother has returned 16 times to Varanasi to ensure that her son is coping well. After her frequent meetings with him, including one on the day this correspondent met them, Marina reports he has fared well. “He came to India like a boy and has now become a man. When I told him a journalist is coming, he told me to tell you that he has nothing to complain about and that he has faith in the judiciary,” she says. “Tomaso has even developed a paunch with all the Indian food he has been eating.” Elisabetta’s father, here for the second time, and whose statements Marina translates, adds that his daughter too is doing well. Together they have spent over Rs 2.4 crore in legal expenses to defend their children.

The parents maintain that Francesco died of natural causes, something they say was a likely result of his heavy smoking and prior illness on the trip. They even question the two post-mortems—the first because it was done by an “eye specialist” and the second for being an “exact photocopy” of the first. “It doesn’t even make a mention of the rat bites that were caused while the body was kept at the hospital,” says Marina. But what about the external injuries around Francesco’s neck that were reported in the post-mortem? The defendants have claimed that they were inflicted while transporting his heavy body to the hospital.

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Francesco’s parents, who live in Sardinia, have on the other hand never come to India. “They have refused to press any charges,” says Marina. “In fact, they are concerned for the two.” Negotiating their way through India’s judiciary and police, that too in a language they do not speak (Hindi), has proved to be a challenge. But this hasn’t necessarily soured their impression of India. “It could have happened in any other country,” says Marina.

The parents had also met Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi in January, who promised to follow the case with “personal interest”. (He resigned following the furore on the Italian marines issue). They have also been tracking the marines’ case closely, fearful of any adv­erse repercussions that could have arisen had they stayed back in Italy.

Even if the Supreme Court upholds the trial court’s verdict, their parents hope the two can serve out their remaining sentence in their country. This would be under a new prisoner exchange agreement between India and Italy, one that became operational in December last year. For now, it’s a tho­ught they’d rather put aside. “We have full faith in India’s Supreme Court,” says Marina.

By Debarshi Dasgupta in Varanasi

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