India's Prime Minister demands Italy return marines for trial

NEW DELHI (AP) - India's Prime Minister demanded on Wednesday that Italy return two marines accused of killing two fishermen last year - or "there will be consequences".

The Indian government allowed the marines to return home last month to vote in Italy's national elections and to celebrate Easter with a promise from the Italian ambassador that they would return to stand trial. Italy announced on Monday it would not send them back.

The marines, Massimilian Latorre and Salvatore Girone, were part of a military security team aboard a cargo ship when they opened fire on a fishing boat in February last year that they said they mistook for a pirate craft, killing the two fishermen. Italy maintains the shooting occurred in international waters and that Rome should have jurisdiction. India said the ship was in Indian territorial waters.

The dispute, along with allegations of bribes and kickbacks in a US$750 million (S$934 million) helicopter deal, has badly damaged relations between the two nations. Angry politicians have attacked the government for allowing the two Italians to leave the country in the first place, and they demand retaliation.

"I want to make it clear that these actions of the government of Italy are not acceptable," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament on Wednesday. "They violate every rule of diplomatic discourse and call into question solemn commitments given by the accredited representative of a sovereign government to our Supreme Court."

Dr Singh said Italy's actions were damaging bilateral relations that were built on trust.

"Our government has insisted that the Italian authorities respect the undertaking they had given to the Supreme Court and return the two accused persons to stand trial in India," he said. If they don't, "there will be consequences". He did not elaborate on what those would be.

"Our government has insisted that the Italian authorities respect the undertaking they had given to the Supreme Court and return the two accused persons to stand trial in India," he said.

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, the top bureaucrat in India's foreign ministry, said he told the Italian ambassador on Tuesday that India expects his country to live up to its commitments.

On Tuesday, lawmakers from the southern state of Kerala, near the site of the shooting, met with Dr Singh to urge him to ensure justice for the families of the fishermen. The wife of one of the slain fishermen said the decision to let the marines go home to vote appeared to be part of a plan to spare them from facing trial.

"This is nothing but a conspiracy at the highest level," said the wife Dora Valantine. "The Indian government should ensure that they bring back the two and make them stand trial in this country."

Last year, Italy paid compensation of 10 million rupees (S$230,000) each to the families of the fishermen.

The Indian government earlier allowed the marines to go home over the Christmas holidays, after which they returned to India. In February, India's Supreme Court allowed them to return home to vote after the Italian ambassador gave a guarantee they would return.

The marines said they had put their faith in the Italian government to help them out.

"I knew that our government wasn't abandoning us. It wouldn't abandon us. They gave us four weeks from when we returned to Italy to vote, and I felt that something would happen, something positive, I mean," Girone was quoted as saying by the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

But he said they were not celebrating their release.

"There isn't anything to celebrate. Our case is not over yet," Girone said.

The Italian government came under attack in that country's media on Tuesday.

The Rome daily La Republica said the move by Premier Mario Monti's caretaker government "dealt a terrible blow to our credibility from the point of view of international image". The newspaper said the decision made the fishermen victims twice.

"First by the tragic misunderstanding, then by a fraudulent behaviour on the part of a country that should in any case take responsibility for what happened."

Italy said Monday that India's decision to try the marines would violate their rights, in particular the principle of immunity for foreign state actors, and that they would not go back.

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