New Delhi: In what may be seen as a major diplomatic victory for the Government, two Italian marines returned to India on Friday evening to face trial for killing two Indian fishermen, off the coast of Kerala last year.
The dramatic return of the two Italian nationals- Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone- also staved off what was turning into a bitter diplomatic stand-off between the two nations.
The visiting Italian Deputy Foreign Minister, Staffan de Mistura, said that a written assurance by the Government of India that the two Italian marines won't be hanged made Rome rethink its decision of not allowing the duo to return.
Addressing a press conference, de Mistura said, "The news of death penalty became a crucial issue in Italy. Death penalty is unacceptable to us, even for foreigners convicted of crime in Italy. The government of India wrote to Rome assuring that the marines will not be sentenced to death. The guarantee was enough for the Italian government."
Hailing Italy's decision to send back the two marines to stand trial, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said diplomacy did the work and denied that any deal was stuck on their return.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also expressed happiness at Rome's decision to send back the two marines.
"I am happy that the integrity and dignity of the Indian judicial process has been upheld. We are happy with the outcome. I welcome the return of Italian marines," he said.
The two marines returned to New Delhi in an special Italian Air Force aircraft.
Khurshid in a statement in the Lok Sabha said, "I am glad that the matter has been brought to a satisfactory conclusion and the trial of the marines will now proceed as per the directions of the Supreme Court in its order of January 18, 2013."
Earlier, the Minister told reporters, "You should not write off diplomacy too soon. Diplomacy continues to work when everyone else thinks everything else has failed. Please give diplomacy a little more chance to do what needs to be done."
"The diplomacy that we do in government is given a direction by the Prime Minister and the Congress president. For anyone else among us to take credit for it would be unbecoming," he said.
The Minister added that the Supreme Court can be informed about the development next week as per legal procedures.
Khurshid also denied that India had struck any deal with Italy for the marines' return.
"I want to clarify that there was no deal with Italy. We clarified the nature of incident and it was not a case for a death sentence," Khurshid said.
Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini had given an undertaking to the Supreme Court that the marines would return to India by March 22 after voting in the Italian national elections.
Following this, the court had Feb 22 permitted them to leave India with the promise that they would return in four weeks.
But on March 11, Italy informed India that the marines would not be sent back, leading to a diplomatic stand-off. Following this, the Italian ambassador here was restrained by the apex court from leaving India for reneging on his word.
The marines, posted aboard oil tanker MV Enrica Lexie on security duty, had Feb 15, 2012, opened fire at a fishing boat off the coast of Kerala, suspecting that the boat carried pirates. Two fishermen, Ajesh Binki and Gelastine, were killed in the firing.
Italy's refusal to send back the two marines caused a political storm in India with opposition parties slamming the government for its handling of the issue.
The Prime Minister then assured that the government would do "whatever needs to be done" to bring back the two Italian marines to stand trial here.
UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi termed Italy's refusal as "outright unacceptable".
However, the opposition, which had attacked the government for being too soft on the issue, said the government alone cannot take credit for Rome's change in stance.
BJP president Rajnath Singh said, "I believe the BJP and all opposition parties succeeded in raising the issue forcefully and played an important role. Seeing that, and the unity of the country, Italy decided to send the marines back."
"The Congress can garland itself if it wants, but the truth is that credit must be given to public pressure, the pressure created by parliament, international pressure, and also to the stand the Supreme Court took," CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta said.
With IANS Inputs
First Published: Friday, March 22, 2013, 23:15