Two Italian marines returned to India on Friday to face trial for the killing of two fishermen, following a surprise climbdown by Rome that has eased a diplomatic dispute with New Delhi but ignited a political row in Italy.
Rome, which had earlier reneged on a promise to send the two men to India, said it had now “received written assurances from the Indian authorities regarding the treatment of the marines and the protection of their fundamental rights”. Both sides said there was no risk of a death penalty for the two.
The dispute arose from an incident in February 2012 in which the marines, who were on anti-piracy duty aboard an Italian-flagged tanker, shot the fishermen off the coast of Kerala in southern India. After they were arrested in the state, the two countries argued over which should have jurisdiction in the case.
Indian ministers were jubilant over an Italian U-turn they regard as a diplomatic triumph. Manmohan Singh, prime minister, said the government was “happy” with the outcome.
“The Italian marines are coming back in accordance with the direction of the Supreme Court and it is consistent with the dignity of judicial process in India,” he said.
But the saga of the marines has ignited fierce polemics in Italy in the last days of Mario Monti’s technocrat government. “Traitors of Italy!” screamed the banner headline in the Il Giornale daily newspaper, part of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire, referring to the prime minister and his cabinet. Giulio Terzi, foreign minister, has rejected calls for his resignation.
India had allowed the marines to return home twice, once for Christmas and the second time to vote in the recent Italy elections.
While they were there for the general election, Rome said they would not return as agreed by Friday, prompting outrage in India and a Supreme Court order obliging Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini, who had guaranteed the marines’ return, to stay in India.
That in turn stoked a new dispute about the rights and duties of diplomats, with the EU noting that India was obliged to respect the immunity of diplomats under the Vienna Convention.
The marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, are expected to face trial at a special court.
Before Italy’s last-minute climbdown, Mr Singh had threatened Rome with unspecified consequences, leaving open the possibility of sanctions against Italian companies with business in India.
“They have violated every rule of diplomatic discourse and call into question solemn commitments given by an accredited representative of a government,” Mr Singh told parliament.
With additional reporting by Guy Dinmore in Rome