India bars Italian envoy from leaving, escalating tensions over marines shooting incident

India wants Italy to send two Italian marines accused of shooting Indian fishermen back to stand trial. Italy has refused, despite having promised earlier that it would.

This file photo shows Italian marines Salvatore Girone, left, and Massimiliano Latorre, arriving at the office of Kochi's Police Commissioner, in Kochi, India.

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India’s Supreme Court blocked the Italian ambassador from leaving the country today, further escalating a diplomatic dispute over two Italian marines accused of shooting two fishermen last year in the Arabian Sea, off the southwestern coast of India. 

India wants the marines – who were allowed to leave briefly after Italy guaranteed in writing that they would come back – to be returned to face murder charges in a special court in Delhi. Italy, however, has refused to honor that request.

“Italy takes this opportunity to inform the Indian government that, given the formal acknowledgement of an international dispute between the two states, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone will not be returning to India upon expiration of the leave granted them,” the Italian government said in a statement on Monday.

In response, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament on Wednesday that, "Our government has insisted that Italian authorities …  respect the undertaking they have given to the Supreme Court and return the two accused persons to stand trial in India.

"If they do not keep their word, there will be consequences for our relations with Italy," Mr. Singh said. His response was met by cheers, reports The Wall Street Journal.

India says the shooting took place in Indian waters. Italy contends it took place in international waters, and thus the marines – who have said they thought the men were Somali pirates – should be tried at home.

A post on The New York Times India Ink blog notes that the situation is complicated by the fact that ruling Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy and thus is suspected by some of being in the pocket of the European country. London's Financial Times reiterates that point, reporting that opposition members in India have “accused the government of colluding with Italy to allow the marines to abscond and have suggested that Congress … is beholden to foreigners.”

And furthering tensions between the two countries is the fallout from recent corruption investigation by Italy into a Finmeccanica helicopter deal with India.

Today, India's Supreme Court told Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini that he and the accused marines had until Monday to explain themselves, reports The Financial Times. 

India government was 'naive'

In India, myriad editorials, tweets, and commentary largely condemned the government’s “naïveté” in allowing the marines to exit the country before trial.

An editorial in The Times of India states that “The incident will reinforce the impression of India being a soft state with foreigners, whether friend or foe, unable to take its commitment to the rule of law seriously.

"In the event there's little that New Delhi can do now. At best it can make a show of diplomatic anger and expel the Italian ambassador, but that will hardly serve the cause of justice for the fishermen. The misuse of paroles is rampant in India. But our government can't show the same apathy in the Italian marines' case. Their government has done an exemplary job of pursuing their interests. Fishermen plying some 3,00,000 fishing boats operating along the Indian coast deserve similarly robust defence. When they are mistaken for Somali pirates, shouldn't they be able to count on their government to champion them?"

And many Indians took to Twitter to denounce their government’s decision. “We could have at least sent the #ItalianMarines back in one of our AgustaWestland VVIP choppers,” tweeted @ShivAroor, alluding to the alleged kickback scheme in India over the manufacturing of the Anglo-Italian helicopters.

And a cartoon by Satya in The Times of India shows an image of Singh calling Italy asking for the marines to be returned. The Italian response?

“You think it's some pizza service? No home delivery!” A thought bubble next to the prime minister shows him noting that he must have called the wrong number.

An editorial entitled “An Italian Job” in The Hindu says that refusing to return Mr. Latorre and Mr. Girone may earn Italy “brownie points at home,” but the decision is “unbecoming of a responsible nation.

"The duo were permitted by the Supreme Court to visit Italy to cast their votes in the Feb. 22 national election, on a promise by the Italian government that they would return to India to face trial. Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi of the outgoing government spoke glowingly of the decision as “evidence of the climate of mutual trust and cooperation with Indian authorities.” Italy now stands in breach of that trust. The Italian foreign ministry says New Delhi did not heed its request for a diplomatic resolution, a curious statement considering all avenues for such resolution have already been tried and exhausted….

"While India-Italy ties will not be the same again, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the two accused men to leave India is also curious…. another embarrassment for the UPA, which stands exposed for allowing itself to be taken for a ride so easily by a foreign government.

India's actions also came in for criticism from abroad. “The Indian government continues to embarrass itself through repeated diplomatic bunglings,” read an editorial in Gulf News entitled “Italian marines exploited India’s naïve diplomacy.”

According to Reuters, Indian officials say they are weighing their next steps, and may consider expelling the Italian ambassador if the men don’t arrive in court as scheduled on March 22.

"I am the envoy. I will represent the government of Italy until the very moment when [a competent authority] would declare me persona non grata," ambassador Mancini told reporters yesterday.

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