Enrica Lexie Dispute Deepens as Ambassador Told to Stay in India

Enrica Lexie in Kochi, India
Enrica Lexie in Kochi, India

By Bibhudatta Pradhan

(Bloomberg) — India’s top court told the Italian ambassador to New Delhi not to leave the country without its permission as protests escalated over Italy’s decision to block the return of two marines charged with killing fishermen.

A bench headed by the Supreme Court Chief Justice Altamas Kabir yesterday imposed the curb on envoy Daniele Mancini and requested he explain by March 18 the Italian government’s move. The court last month allowed the marines to leave India to vote in Italy’s election following an undertaking from Mancini that they would be sent back within four weeks.

“Under the Vienna convention, the ambassador may claim diplomatic immunity and decide not to respond to the notice,” said Sanjay Hegde, an advocate in the Supreme Court.

The diplomatic standoff between the two nations over the fate of the men has steadily intensified, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week saying there would be “consequences” for bilateral ties if Italian authorities in Rome don’t “keep their word.”

The order doesn’t violate the ambassador’s diplomatic immunity as he had willingly submitted himself to the court’s jurisdiction, India’s foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters yesterday in New Delhi.

Voluntary Agreement

“No aspect of the Vienna convention has been impacted on,” Akbaruddin said. “We expect Italy to respect the agreement its ambassador voluntarily submitted to the highest court of India.”

The marines were guarding the Italian-flagged Enrica Lexie tanker on its journey to Egypt from Singapore, a route that includes crossing the Indian Ocean, where Somali pirates operate.

Italy has argued that the men shot the two fishermen in self-defense suspecting them to be pirates, and that the marines should be tried in their own country because the incident occurred in seas outside of India’s jurisdiction. India says the attack happened in its territorial waters off the southern state of Kerala.

“Everything that is necessary to ensure the dignity and the primacy of India in this matter will be preserved,” Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters in New Delhi yesterday. “This is a matter that will be treated with greatest urgency. We have to take steps.”

India on March 12 summoned ambassador Mancini to protest his government’s decision.

Combatting Piracy

The attempted prosecution of the Italians is the first to hold armed maritime guards accountable for the deaths of innocent people in an anti-piracy operation. Relations between the two countries were further strained by allegations that bribes were paid by the AgustaWestland unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA to secure the contract to supply 12 civilian helicopters to the Indian government.

Mancini informed the Indian authorities that marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone “won’t return to India,” the European nation’s Foreign Ministry said March 11. The Italian government said India failed to respond to a request to negotiate a diplomatic solution.

Ferrari SpA, the Italian sports carmaker, even weighed in, having two of its cars carry the flag of the Italian navy during the Oct. 28 Formula One grand-prix race in New Delhi.

India’s Chief Justice ruled in January that the two men could be put on trial, ordering hearings before a specially convened court in the capital.

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.