After a series of flip-flops, the Centre Monday told the Supreme Court that the two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala would not be tried under the stringent anti-piracy law. The government had earlier ruled out death penalty to accused marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone.
However, Italy responded to this concession by forcefully arguing that the government’s decision had rendered “illegal” the entire probe conducted so far.
The court will now decide if it can ratify the probe so far by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) or a fresh probe, as sought by Italy, would be called for.
As the hearing began Monday, Attorney General G E Vahanvati said the government had accepted the law minister’s opinion to drop charges under the stringent anti-piracy SUA against the marines. “The opinion of the law minister is that the SUA will not be attracted in this case. The government has accepted it,” the AG told a Bench of Justices B S Chauhan and J Chelameswar.
But senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for the marines and the Republic of Italy, pointed out that the MHA had already sanctioned invoking the SUA and that the government’s affidavit did not clearly say it would not be invoked in the chargesheet.
Rohatgi contended that after a decision to drop the charges, the NIA’s investigation had no sanction of law and the marines could not be sent to trial on the basis of a legally flawed probe. Vahanvati countered the submission, saying the previous SC order wanted a “neutral” agency to investigate the case and hence NIA was roped in. He said that NIA’s investigation could now be ratified by a court order.
Rohatgi opposed this and asked the bench to decide after hearing both parties. The court has now listed the matter after three weeks, giving time to Italy to file an application to challenge the NIA probe and to the government to respond.
Later in the day, MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said: “This is not a bilateral issue between India and Italy. It is a legal issue about ensuring that those who are charged with the death of Indian nationals are held to account for it in accordance with Indian law.”