India Welcomes Return of Italian Marines Charged With Killings

India welcomed the Italian government’s decision to return two marines to the South Asian nation to face trial over the killing of fishermen, a move that allows the two countries to mend a diplomatic rift.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said in a statement to parliament today that Italy had been assured the marines wouldn’t be arrested if they arrived in India before a court-imposed deadline, and that if found guilty they won’t face the death penalty. Italy agreed to send back the men after it received assurances their “fundamental rights” will be protected, Prime Minister Mario Monti’s office said.

The standoff between the two nations escalated after the Italian government said on March 11 that marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone would remain in Italy, because India failed to respond to a request to negotiate a diplomatic solution. The men are expected in India today.

The Supreme Court of India had in February allowed the marines to leave the country to vote in Italy’s election following an undertaking by Italy that they would be sent back within four weeks.

After Italy blocked their return, India’s top court restrained Italy’s ambassador, Daniele Mancini, from leaving the country. Indian authorities summoned Mancini and alerted airports nationwide to block the diplomat from departing. Confronted in parliament by angry lawmakers this month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said there would be “consequences” for ties if Italian authorities don’t “keep their word.”

Judicial Integrity

Singh said today he was “happy that the integrity and dignity of the Indian judicial process has been upheld.”

The men at the center of the case are charged with shooting dead two fishermen in February 2012, while they were guarding an Italian-flagged tanker from pirate attacks.

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.

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 in February that bribes were paid by AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA, to secure a contract to supply 12 civilian helicopters to the Indian government.

“The situation is coming back to normal” and Italy is not exposing the marines to risks, Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said in an interview to la Repubblica newspaper. “In any case we want to take them back home. It must be clear that our effort doesn’t end here.”

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