Sunday, March 24, 2013


The VVIP accused

If you're an Italian in India, you're a VVIP. It had never been in doubt in the past. The only thing new this time is that if you're an Italian and have committed a heinous crime in India, you continue to be so. Be it Ottavio Quattrocchi or the two Italian marines Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre facing charges of murder in Kerala, they are treated as VVIPs, as the ordinary Indian accused of similar or lesser crimes rot in jails.

In spite of the fact that law & order is the State subject, the Government of India (GoI) had, from the very beginning, been trying to poke its nose in the criminal case against the Italian sailors. It put pressure on Congress government there but in vain. The reasons are not difficult to fathom.

GoI has proved to be the most condescending and kind to let these accused to visit their homeland Italy for Christmas celebrations. Then, it allowed the two, just after two months, to visit their country once again for a month to exercise their right to franchise. The GoI did not oppose their request.  Even a surety of a sizeable amount was not demanded.  

The Italian Ambassador to India deliberately withheld from the Supreme Court of India (SC) the fact that under the Italian constitution an Italian citizen can exercise his franchise through the Italian embassy in the country wherever he is at the time of polling. 

The two Italian sailors facing murder charges have not been put in any jail but in guest houses, a luxury at the cost of the Indian people.

No mortal of Indian origin charged with murder or any other heinous crime is allowed parole to celebrate Dussehra, Diwali, Holi, Navratras, Ramzan, Christmas or the like. No accused in jail have ever been allowed to visit their native places to exercise their democratic right to franchise even for a day. Even our elected representatives in Central and State legislatures facing similar charges in courts are not extended this privilege.

The Government of Italy, first, refused to honour the undertaking given by the Italian Ambassador to the SC that the duo will return after one month. When the SC took a firm stand and directed the Ambassador not to leave India, it sent waves of panic in Italy. Its Ambassador stood the possibility of being jailed for contempt of court. Ultimately, the Government of Italy did bend but not before the GoI crawled.

Justifying the earlier stand, the Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzia told an Italian publication:"We would not have been able to negotiate the current conditions, which envisage (good) conditions of everyday living and guarantee that the death penalty will not applied."

Good living conditions are being interpreted as a sort of house arrest under the care of the Italian ambassador. The two sailors returned just in time to keep Rome's commitment to the SC.

Italian deputy foreign minister Staffan de Mistura, who accompanied the marines back to India, flashing the GoI undertaking, said the "suspension" of affidavit given in SC was a difficult decision but added that the Italian law against death penalty is so strict that Italy needed a guarantee. Thus Government of Italy extracted from India what it could have got only if there was an extradition treaty between the two countries. In similar circumstances, India had drawn blank in the past.

The solution was triggered by a letter from Indian authorities which was a very comprehensive letter and official letter guaranteeing to the Italian authorities that in this case there is no question that death penalty could even be envisaged and at the same time the marines upon their return will have the same status that they had on their departure," Mistura said.

Though India's foreign minister Salman Khurshid asserted that no deal had been struck, yet he admitted in Parliament that India had assured Italy in writing that there would be no death penalty for marines. He clearly said, "Notwithstanding the pending proceedings, the government has informed the Italian government that the two marines will not be liable for arrest if they return within the time frame laid down by the Supreme Court of India, and shall once again be bound by the conditions contained in the order passed by the court on 18th January, 2013."

The minister added: "... and that, according to well settled Indian jurisprudence, this case would not fall in the category of matters which attract the death penalty, that is to say the rarest of rare cases." The assurance that the marines will not face death penalty was touted by Italy as a major concession as the sentence violates European Union law but it put the Indian government in a fix for pre-judging the likely charges that can be brought to bear against the marines.

The VVIP treatment meted out – and assured – to the Italian accused violates the provisions in Article 14 of the Constitution of India which provides that the "State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth" (emphasis added). Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the same grounds.
Whether a person is guilty or innocent of the charge brought against him or her should or should not face death penalty or whether the crime is "the rarest of the rare cases" is the exclusive jurisdiction of the judiciary and not of the executive, i.e. GoI. Once our Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had decried the judicial "overreach" of the courts. Does Khurshid's assurance not amount to executive "overreach"?

The surrender story does not end here. The GoI on March 23  asked the Delhi High Court to set up a special court to try the two Italian marines accused of killing two fishermen off the Kerala coast last year.  Earlier in the day, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the Kollam district sessions court should be designated as the special court for the trial of the case. In a letter to the PM, Chandy said that the Kollam sessions court was originally scheduled for the trial and if the special court is constituted in Delhi, as directed by the Supreme Court, witnesses in the case will have to frequently travel to Delhi. Besides, documents in the chargesheet which are in Malayalam have to be translated into other languages. That would delay the trial, said the Chief Minister. ( But, for obvious reasons, GoI has chosen to brush aside the objections of its own Congress government.
Numerous persons of foreign origin, including those involved in the Purulia arms dropping case, have been arrested and tried for various crimes in India. But never has the government treated them differently from the persons of Indian origin. No person, however high or low, accused of any crime has been accorded "good living conditions" being interpreted as a sort of house arrest under the care of the … ambassador" of the country they belong to. Why this exception in the case of Italians? That remains unexplained.

The only saving grace is that Manmohan government has succeeded in preventing a major diplomatic blast that would have harmed India more than Italy. But all this happened only after UPA government crawled to make Italy bend.

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