Italian envoy faces hearing in Indian Supreme Court over marines case

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Italy's ambassador to New Delhi, who was ordered last week to remain in India amid a row over two Italian marines charged with murder, faces a tense hearing in the Supreme Court on Monday.

Mr Daniele Mancini had personally negotiated the release on bail of the two marines last month, enabling them to return to Italy to vote in the country's general election.

After a year of disagreement over their fate between Rome and New Delhi, the Italian government announced last Monday that it would renege on its commitment to send the men back and they would remain at home.

A furious Indian government has warned of "consequences" and is reviewing its ties with Italy, while the Supreme Court ordered that Mr Mancini should remain in the country and explain himself in court on Monday.

The restraining order appeared to run contrary to international rules guaranteeing diplomats freedom of movement, but India has insisted that Mr Mancini willingly submitted himself to the jurisdiction of its top court.

Orders were issued to Indian airports last Friday asking them to prevent Mr Mancini from leaving if he tried to board a plane without permission.

The envoy, who signed an affidavit personally guaranteeing the return of the marines, is not expected to appear in court personally on Monday and is likely to reply either in another written statement or via his lawyers.

The marines shot dead two fishermen off India's southwestern coast in February last year when a fishing boat sailed close to the Italian oil tanker they were guarding. They say they mistook the fishermen for pirates.

Italy insists the marines should be prosecuted in their home country because the shootings involved an Italian-flagged vessel in international waters, but India says the killings took place in waters under its jurisdiction.

Relations between the two countries have also been soured by corruption allegations surrounding a US$748 million deal for the purchase of 12 Italian helicopters which the Indian government is now threatening to scrap.

The hearing into the case is set to open in the Supreme Court at 10:45 am (1.15pm Singapore time).