THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: In 2012, Enrica Lexie was one of the most oft-heard names not only in the state, but across the country after two Kerala fishermen were shot dead, around 20.5 nautical miles off the Indian coast, by two Italian marines onboard the eponymous merchant vessel on February 15.The mid-sea firing, a first-of-its-kind incident, triggered a major controversy with politico-diplomatic ramifications.
The Supreme Court issued its final verdict on Tuesday quashing criminal cases against the marines -- Massimiliano Latore and Salvatore Girone. The firing had also led to a major diplomatic standoff between India and Italy, with the latter harping on the ‘international waters’ claim while India held firm for a trial as the incident happened within its Exclusive Economic Zone.
Even as the families of fishermen Ajeesh Pink and Valentine Jelestine are yet to come to terms with the tragedy, the ripples of the shootout are still felt in the maritime sector. A look at how the mid-sea shootout influenced the Indian maritime sector shows that the Enrica Lexie case has brought in a paradigm shift in the sector’s perspective towards maritime safety. The verdict in the Enrica Lexie case could set a precedence if a similar incident were to occur in the future, opined V M Joy, coordinator, Sailors Helpline. While seafarers involved in genuine accidents are treated differently, the marines were treated like they were state guests, he said.
“Do Indian sailors imprisoned in other countries receive the same treatment? Would the Italians have done the same to a European vessel? The marines were trigger-happy and never followed the rules. There were no records to prove that they had forewarned the fishermen. The Indian coast is not known to suffer piracy attacks. Obviously, the Captain knew that the Indian coast is safe and that is why the ship chose to move close to the mainland,” he pointed out.
Former shipping secretary K Mohandas said lack of civilian control over armed guards was the biggest folly. He, however, maintained that the incident should be viewed against the backdrop of the piracy threat that prevailed at the time. The incident occurred at a time when piracy was at its peak and Somali pirates were spotted as near as Lakshadweep islands. That’s when merchant ships started posting armed guards on board.
“There’s absolutely no justification for what the marines did, yet it occurred at a time when piracy was rampant. There’s generally a coexistence among fishing boats and merchant vessels. The marines should have checked with the Captain before opening fire. If armed guards were posted on commercial ships, they should function under civilian authority,” he said. In a way, the verdict has also shed light into the predicament of Indian sailors in other countries, following different incidents related to maritime accidents or piracy attacks.
THE POLITICAL ANGLE
Back in 2012, the Enrica Lexie incident had also gained mileage as a poll platform in two bypolls in the state — Neyyattinkara and Piravom. On the political front, on the one side, senior leader Subramanian Swami connected the issue with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, thus altogether giving the issue a political dimension. On the other, a reported intervention by the Church, as interpreted through the statements made by some Church leaders, gave a religious angle to the fishermen killing. The issue first came up before High Court, and then the Supreme Court. Later, the matter came up before the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations Convention On Law of Seas.
case down the lane
February 15, 2012: Ajeesh Pink and Valentine Jalastine on fishing boat
‘St Antony’ shot dead by Italian marines Massimiliano Latore and Salvatore Girone on board merchant vessel Enrica Lexie, at about 20.5 nautical miles off Kerala coast
February 16, 2012: The vessel, proceeding towards Djibouti, is brought to Cochin Port after a message from Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, Mumbai. An FIR is registered in the incident at Neendakara Station. The marines are arrested from the vessel on February 19.
March 2012: Families of the fishermen approach High Court seeking compensation. Enrica Lexie approaches Supreme Court.
May 2012: The apex court allows the vessel to leave the country after executing a bond of I3 crore.
December 2012: HC grants the marines a two-week conditional Christmas vacation, on a bank guarantee of I6 crore. The two leave for Italy on December 22.
January 2013: SC rejects Italy’s argument of sovereign immunity and upholds India’s criminal jurisdiction over the marines. The apex court also says Kerala Government has no jurisdiction to investigate. It orders to set up a special court for trial.
September 2014: Massimiliano Latore approaches SC seeking permission to go to Italy for medical treatment. He had suffered a stroke in August. The SC allows his plea. The second marine returns to
Italy in May 2016.
August 2015: Italy approaches International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which directed both India and Italy to suspend all court proceedings. The case is later referred to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
September 2016: Union Government informs SC that it has no objection if the two marines remain in Italy. SC allows both to remain in their home country.
July 2020: Permanent Court of Arbitration directs Italy to pay compensation to the families of the fishermen and India to drop all prosecution charges against the marines.
August 202o: Centre informs the SC that a decision has been taken to accept the PCA verdict. SC makes clear that it cannot drop charges against the marines without hearing the victims’ families.
April 2021: Union Government informs SC about the negotiated compensation. Italy agrees to pay additional compensation of I10 crore. The state government informs the court that the victims’ families have agreed to accept the compensation.
June 15, 2021: SC quashes criminal cases against the marines and directs to transfer the amount to the Kerala High Court. The apex court also directs the Chief Justice of Kerala to take
further steps on issuing an order for disbursal of the amount.