(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 1 March, 2012, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/the-killing-of-fishermen-by-italian-marines/368289.html)
NOTE: This contains no opinion. It's a round-up of the shooting incident and what followed.
On 15 February, 2012, two fishermen hailing from South India were killed when Italian marines fired on an Indian fishing trawler, from their tanker Enrica Rexie. The Italians claimed they had mistaken the vessel for a pirate ship, and were acting in self-defence. It was found that the Indian fishermen were unarmed.
The marines, Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone, were arrested after the tanker was made to dock at Kochi. They are now being tried according to Indian laws, even as India and Italy try to sort out the diplomatic row over the incident.
On 15 February 2012, shots were fired from Enrica Rexie at a fishing trawler off Kollam coast near Kerala. Two fishermen, Ajesh Binki (25) from Tamil Nadu and Jalastein (45) from Kerala were killed, while nine others on board survived. The Indian Coast Guard says the incident took place at around 4:30 pm – the tanker was travelling from Singapore to Egypt, and the trawler Saint Antony was returning to the coast.
The bodies of the two fishermen were brought to Neendakara harbour and then taken to the Medical College Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram, for post mortem. Kerala announced a solatium of Ts 5 lakh to each victim, while Tamil Nadu gave the family of Binki an additional Rs 5 lakh. Kerala said a government job would be given to the widow of Jalastein.
Meanwhile, right after the fishing boat reported the incident to local police, the Indian Coast Guard deployed two ships and an aircraft to intercept the Enrica Lexie. The Italian oil tanker was summoned to Kochi, where Kerala Police questioned the crew and officers, and arrested the two marines on 19 February. A murder case was filed against them later that day. The marines were produced in a Kollam court the next day, and remanded in police custody. They were sent to prison for three days, and then granted bail.
What is the controversy about?
There are several versions of what exactly happened. It has been reported that the incident took place between 22 nautical miles (41 km) and 14 nautical miles (26 km) from the Indian coast. There is a dispute over whether this falls within India’s jurisdiction.
The captain of Enrica Lexie, Umberto Vitelli, and the 6 marines travelling with the crew, claimed they had fired at a boat of armed pirates approaching the ship. However, the Ministry of External Affairs said the fishermen were not armed. No bullet marks were found on the oil tanker either.
The Italian crew also said they first warned the approaching boat by flashing search lights and displaying weapons. This was treated with suspicion, as the incident occurred at daytime, when search lights would not have been effective.
Next, there is disagreement over where the shooting happened. Italy says it occurred in international waters. The crew also said the boat that had approached them was not the same as the one in which the fishermen were found dead. According to India, the firing occurred in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone which is within its jurisdiction. The captain and owner of the fishing boat, Freddie Louis, said the firing began when his boat was waiting for the tanker to pass, and lasted two minutes.
Also, there is a charge that instead of reporting suspicious activity to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, the Enrica Lexiecontinues sailing and only gave details two and a half hours after the incident, when they were contacted by the Coast Guard. But Italy maintains that the ship voluntarily docked at Kochi.
Besides, there are allegations that procedure was flouted. If a ship is being pursued by a pirate vessel, guidelines state that the ship must first alter its course and carry out evasive manoeuvres. Failing this, they must fire warning shots over the pirate vessel.
The issue was complicated further when it came to light that a Greek oil tanker, Olympic Flair, had reported a pirate attack near Kochi, but left Indian waters unnoticed and without reporting the incident to Indian authorities.
How has this affected India-Italy ties?
The Ministry of External Affairs summoned Italian Ambassador Giacomo Sanfelice di Montefor on 16 February, and lodged an official protest.
On 17 February, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna spoke to the Italian Foreign Minister Guilio Terzi and said the fishermen had been unarmed, thus posing no threat t the ship.
Along with Di Montefor, a delegation of experts from Italy’s Foreign, Defence and Justice Ministries arrived in India on 19 February to hold talks with Indian officials. However, no agreement was reached. On the same day, the marines were arrested.
There has been a wrangle over the legalities. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is usually used to establish which country should conduct a probe and trial into the incident. But both India and Italy have cited loopholes. Italy says its laws make it clear that its citizens are immune to the jurisdiction of foreign countries. But India says there are provisions in its laws that allow people who have perpetrated crimes against Indian citizens to be tried by its courts, irrespective of where the incident occurred.
A brief distraction was created when Vatican-based Catholic news agency Fides quoted newly consecrated Cardinal Mar George Alencherry from Kerala asking for a peaceful solution. The agency said he had spoken to the Kerala government in order to resolve the issue. But Alencherry denied that he had intervened in any manner and said the news agency had apologised for its mistake.
Finally, S M Krishna met Guilio Terzi in Delhi. Both Foreign Ministers said the two sides had failed to agree on who had jurisdiction over the case. They also said both countries had strong opinions, but “were cooperating”. Terzi will meet the marines in Kochi, where they are being held before he returns home.
At present, Italian observers are involved in the investigation, and the case will be heard by a court in Kerala.
15 February: Two Indian fishermen die, allegedly in shooting by Italian marines of the Reggimento San Marco, Marina Militare, Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone.
16 February: MEA summons the Italian Ambassador and lodges a protest.
17 February: Jalastein’s body is buried in Kollam, while Ajesh Binki is buried in Nagercoil. Solatium of Rs 5 lakh each is announced by the Kerala government to the families of the victims. TN announces an additional Rs 5 lakh for Binki’s family. S M Krishna calls up the Italian Foreign Minister.
19 February: Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone taken into custody by Kerala police on directions of the Ministry of External Affairs after the Italian ship refuses to hand them over voluntarily. Murder case is filed against them. High-level parleys are held between the two countries in Delhi.
20 February: Kollam court orders police custody for marines, says they must be imprisoned for 3 days before bail is granted.
22 February: Jalastein’s family files a petition in the Kerala High Court, seeking Rs 1 crore in monetary relief from the owners of Erica Lexie.
24 February: Sisters of Ajesh Binki file a petition in Kerala High court seeking monetary relief of Rs 2 crore.
28 February: India, Italy fail to reach a resolution on the issue.