KOCHI: It’s a punishable offence to smoke in a public place. Especially on court premises. The two Italian marines Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone—who shot dead two Malayali fishermen Ajesh Binky and Celestine of the fishing trawler St Antony from the deck of the Italian ship Enrica Lexie, lighting up inside the court compound has angered many. So has the fact that they were put up at the CISF guest house at the government’s expense before being shifted to Kollam. Both marines are said to be from the San Marco regiment, the Italian version of Special Forces, highly trained and ready to take action at a moment’s notice.
How come the shooting has become a complex international issue that involves the Vatican, the Roman Catholic church in Kerala, the Italian and the Indian governments? The structure of Italy may hold the key to understanding the scenario. Italy consists of the peninsula in the South that has Sicily, Sardinia and many other smaller islands. The independent states of San Marino and the Vatican City are enclaves within Italy. Italian commerce is handled by the Vatican and San Marino. This perhaps explains why Indian diplomats got involved in allegations of trying to let the ship off the hook. The Italian mission even tried to get the FIR against the marines quashed and failed. Italian government officials have quoted Article 97 of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which states no other authority can detain a ship except that of the country whose flag the vessel is sailing under. Indian fishing boats can travel in territorial waters up to 200 nautical miles while foreign ships travel around 25 miles close to the coast, and many accidents have been reported.
Families and advocates of the dead sailors accuse a massive cover-up is going on to help the marines. The statement of Cardinal Mar George Alencherry of the Roman Catholic Church—later described as a ‘slip of tongue’—to a Vatican website seeking a ‘peaceful solution’ to the controversy has acquired political overtones in the context of the Paravur byelection which will be a turning point for the Congress-led ruling Left Democratic Front which lives on a thin wedge of a majority. In an interview to the Pontifical Mission Society’s information services, the cardinal said the “matter should be settled through mediation.” The Latin Catholic Diocese of Kollam has jumped into the fray, accusing the police of constructing a case with weak links and has decided to go to court on the issue. Meanwhile, families of the dead fishermen have submitted a petition to Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, alleging the police have manipulated the FIR to suit the Italians. It urges the government not to release the vessel; the Kerala High Court has asked the Cochin Port not to release the ship until Monday. A single bench verdict had ruled Enrica Lexie may be released on a surety of a mere `25 lakh.
The ship would have escaped if it was not the stand-off between the 19 Indians and six armed Italian guards. After the shooting, it was reported that the Enrica Lexie, which was sailing to Al Fujairah in the UAE, changed its destination to Port Said. Incidentally, the ship was carrying five Italian sailors, including two Masters, one meant to take over from the other on return. This has caused confusion as to who was in charge of the vessel. Usually in these matters, it’s the ship’s Master who is held responsible but in this case the presence of two have confounded the issue. The ship’s captain, Umbreto Vitielo, claims neither he nor the crew knew about the shooting. He reportedly told the Kerala police that according to the agreement the shipping line has with the Italian armed forces, the captain’s permission was not necessary to open fire on suspected pirates. However, when Enrica Lexie tried to flee, the Coast Guard gave chase. There were four ships in the area, and upon inquiring if any had experienced pirate activity, only Enrica Lexie replied. It was then taken into Indian waters and impounded, only to be in the centre of a storm—diplomatic and political. Coast Guard sources say Enrica Lexie tried to flee the scene, but Coast Guard 4 despatched CGS Samar, CGS Lakshmibai and INS Kalra from the Southern Naval Command to bring the Italian craft to port.
Who owns the Enrica Lexie? It’s complicated. It’s reportedly run by three entities. The Mumbai-based M/s Scorpio Marine Management (India) Pvt Ltd, purportedly owned by an Italian of Indian origin, Captain Ashley Cooper, operates the ship under Government of India RPS licence number 165 issued by the Directorate General of Shipping, with offices at 801 Alpha Main Street, Hiranandani Business Park, Powai, Mumbai; Dolphin Tanker SRL, connected to Gruppo Scerni; and on order by Fleet Scerni di Navigazione and technical operator Fratelli d’Amato SPA. According to Scorpio’s statement reported in the media, the company is not directly involved in the ownership and is only responsible for cargo transported by the vessel. The ship wasn’t carrying any.
Meanwhile, the predominantly Catholic fishing community of the area are worried that pressure from the Vatican may give a raw deal to the families of those killed. If this happens before votes are cast in Paravur, the raw deal may extend to the United Democratic Front as well.