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EXPLAINED: 9 Yrs And Rs 10-Cr Later, How Italian Marines Got SC Relief In Kerala Fishermen Shooting Case

Supreme Court of India

Supreme Court of India

All the twists and turns in the case which led to a diplomatic tussle between India and Italy

The Supreme Court has ordered closure of the headline-grabbing Enrica Lexie or Kerala fishermen shooting case in which two Italian marines were implicated. The order comes after the Italian government paid Rs 10 crore compensation for the people affected by the firing incident in February 2012. The case strained diplomatic ties between India and Italy and raised questions of sovereign jurisdiction in coastal waters and saw many twists and turns. Here’s all you need to know.

What Is The Enrica Lexie Case?

Briefly, Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone who were part of the security detail of oil tanker Enrico Lexie, shot at and killed two Indians aboard the fishing vessel St Anthony, Valentine Jelestine and Ajeesh Pink, as their ship was passing the Kerala coast on February 15, 2012. The marines claimed they had suspected that their ship was being approached by a pirate vessel and that they had fired after giving warning.

Following the incident, the ship was intercepted by Indian officials and brought to Kochi port, where Kerala police registered an FIR against the Italian marine duo. Charges included that of murder and attempt to murder as Latorre and Girone were placed under arrest. That sparked the long diplomatic tussle between India and Italy that touched upon questions of jurisdiction and saw the case finally going to Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands.

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What Was The Dispute Over Jurisdiction?

This had to do with the place where the shooting happened. According to reports, Enrica Lexie was about 20.5 nautical miles, or about 38km, away from Kerala’s coastline when the two marines fired on the fishing boat. That would put the ship within the Contiguous Zone of India as per the classification of maritime jurisdiction under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Contiguous Zone covers 24 nautical miles and is an intermediary zone between the territorial sea, which stretches up to 12 nautical miles, and the high seas. Here the jurisdiction of the coastal state extends to violations of customs, fiscal, immigration laws, etc.

So, India held that it was within its rights to try the Italian marines under the laws of the country for their role in the killing of the two fishermen. Accordingly, Kerala police filed their charges in the case.

How The Case Moved From High Court To The Supreme Court?

With the two marines in police custody in Kerala, the Italian government moved Kerala High Court seeking the quashing of the FIR lodged against them. The Italian government contended that Indian courts had no jurisdiction to pursue a case involving an act that had occurred outside the country’s territorial waters.

The argument against their trial in India was that the Indian Penal Code gave jurisdiction for authorities to pursue criminal cases that occurred only within the territory of India, or which involved Indian citizens. It was pointed out that neither of the conditions was satisfied in the present case.

However, the High Court ruled that the Italian marines could be tried in India as they had committed the alleged crime within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of India, which extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline. The reason cited was that a country has the right to monitor law and order in its coastal region.

But the Italian government moved the Supreme Court against this decision, which then set aside the Kerala High Court order, saying it did not have any jurisdiction to deal with the case. But the apex court nonetheless ruled that India can try the two marines and directed that a special court be set up to handle the case. The apex court also handed the probe to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

In the meantime, Latorre and Girone were allowed to go home to Italy in June 2012 for Christmas, returning after the celebrations were over. The Italian government had also paid Rs 1 crore compensation each to the family members of the two deceased fishermen, but that did not stop the case from continuing in India.

In February 2013, the Supreme Court again allowed the two marines to visit Italy, this time to vote in elections in their country. However, this time around, Italy said it will not send back the marines to India.

What Was The Diplomatic Fallout?

When police in Kerala filed a chargesheet against the two marines in May 2012, Italy reacted by recalling its ambassador to India. Again, when Italy said the marines won’t return to India, the Supreme Court ordered that the-then ambassador of Italy, Daniele Mancini, would not be allowed to leave India without its permission. That saw Italy again agree to send back the marines, but not before the then foreign minister Giulio Terzi resigned in protest against the decision.

As a precondition to the marines’ return, India assured Italy that the marines can serve their sentence in Italy if they were convicted in the case. Further, it also said that the duo would not face the death penalty.

The two marines eventually returned but would again go back, Latorre in 2014 and Girone in 2016.

How Did The Case Move In International Forums?

With India insisting it will try the marines according to its laws, Italy in 2015 moved the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea (ITLOS), pleading that the two accused ought to be tried in Italian courts as the alleged killing had occurred in international waters. The tribunal gave an order for “status quo" to be maintained in the case. It said that all court proceedings in the case shall be suspended while new ones could not be initiated.

The two countries finally took the case to the PCA at The Hague in 2015. Thereafter, in August 2016, the Supreme Court suspended proceedings in the case.

The closure that the Supreme Court has now ordered follows the ruling by the PCA in the case in July last year. Agreeing with India’s contention, the PCA ruled that Italy had violated the provisions of UNCLOS by by firing on an Indian fishing vessel and was thus liable to pay compensation for the loss of life of the two fishermen and for damaging the boat. However, it also held that India should suspend all proceedings in the case and had no jurisdiction in the matter.

It was after India and Italy agreed on the compensation amount and the money was released to the government that the Supreme Court finally dropped the criminal charges against the two marines. The PCA had also said that the two marines should face trial in Italy.

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