Italy, India spar over marine suspected of slaying fishermen


THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Italy asked an international panel Wednesday to order India to free a marine who is suspected of shooting to death two Indian fishermen during an anti-piracy operation gone wrong.

In a rare public hearing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the two nations sparred over whether Sgt. Salvatore Girone must remain in India to face murder charges over the 2012 shooting or be permitted to return to Italy to face unspecified charges there.

Italy, which argues that the shooting happened in international waters, appealed to have the marine returned home. Indian officials urged the five-judge Hague panel to reject Italy’s request.

“The victims were Indian nationals killed on board an Indian fishing vessel,” Indian representative Neeru Chadha said.

Girone has been ordered to remain in New Delhi since 2012, although he is free on bail, while his case remains in legal limbo. The Hague panel is expected to take months to reach a decision.

Italy’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Francesco Azzarello, told the panel that Girone should be allowed to return home immediately to see his wife and children aged 14 and 8.

Four years ago Girone and another marine, Massimiliano Latorre, were assigned to anti-piracy duty to protect an Italian oil tanker, the Enrica Lexie, off India’s coast. Italy says the marines opened fire on a fishing boat on Feb. 15, 2012, fearing it was a pirate vessel approaching the tanker at speed. Two Indian fishermen on board were killed instantly.

Latorre was initially ordered to remain in India but was allowed home on compassionate grounds in September 2015 after he suffered a stroke. He could face Indian demands to return to face a murder charge.

Indian representatives sought to make light of Girone’s bail conditions, saying he was staying in the Italian ambassador’s residence in Delhi, enjoyed free movement in the city and was required to report to a police station only once a week.

Wednesday’s hearing follows an inconclusive Italian appeal last year to the U.N.-mandated International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany. That panel ordered India to put on hold its criminal proceedings against the two marines until the Hague-based arbitration panel could decide whether Italy or India should handle the men’s case.

Azzarello said that if India permitted Girone to return home on compassionate grounds, Italy would abide by any order issued by the arbitration panel for him to be returned to India. Azzarello argued that the marine was effectively being used as collateral in the dispute.

“A human being cannot be used as a guarantee for the conduct of a state,” he said.