THIRUVANANTHAPURAM (Reuters) - A court denied bail on Saturday to two Italian sailors charged with the murder at sea of two Indian fishermen they mistook for pirates, hours after Rome recalled its ambassador from New Delhi in an increasingly surly diplomatic row.
The court rejected the bail pleas on grounds Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone might try to escape, said a public prosecutor in Kerala, where the men are detained.
“The judge accepted the prosecution’s apprehension that the accused may escape from the country and tamper with the evidence,” D. Mohanraj, a prosecutor handling the case, told Reuters. A lawyer for the defence said they would appeal.
In a further escalation of the spat, India’s ambassador in Italy was summoned to the foreign ministry which “firmly signalled the unacceptable judicial developments related to the Italian sailors,” the ministry said in a statement.
India says the case of the marines is a matter for the courts and cannot be influenced by political or diplomatic pressure. Italy wants the men tried at home and says the government should intervene.
Italy called back its ambassador for consultations shortly after murder charges were formalised on Friday to express “profound displeasure” with the Indian government’s handling of the case.
“We are sending a strong signal to avoid damaging our relationship,” said Italy’s deputy foreign minister, Staffan de Mistura, on his third mission to India to push for the sailors to be released into Italian custody.
The ambassador was recalled after three telephone calls by Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, a visit by Italy’s defence minister and his own missions to India, de Mistura told Reuters from Kerala.
An official at India’s foreign ministry, who asked not to be identified, said it was unusual that a person of de Mistura’s rank would spend so much time on a case of this nature.
“It does not bother us, but he needs to understand that it is not a U.N. job in Iraq or Afghanistan, where hands-on diplomacy might help,” the official said.
“It doesn’t work here like that, he needs to understand we are slow, things move through a glacial process, but that’s how it is, diplomatic pressure won’t work.”
The two sailors were stationed on a merchant ship passing the Kerala coast and were tasked with protecting it from pirate attacks. They fired warning shots at the fishing boat on February 15, believing it to be a pirate vessel, they said.
Investigators say the fishing boat was unarmed and the shots killed the two fishermen, who were part of a larger crew.
Italy says the incident occurred in international waters and that jurisdiction over the marines should lie with Rome. In April, it paid $190,000 to each of the victims families as compensation. In return, the families dropped their cases against the marines, but the state’s case continues.
Latorre and Girone are expected to be moved from prison to a juvenile detention facility in the next few days. The next hearing in the case is due on May 25, Kerala’s deputy public prosecutor said on Friday.
Attacks on ships have increased in the eastern side of the Arabian Sea, as better security around the Horn of Africa has pushed Somali pirates to make raids as far over as the Maldives. The waters close to India are generally considered safer.
The marines were charged with murder soon after the incident in February. Under Indian law, initial charges are formalised by police after investigation and before a trial can begin.
One of the murder charges carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, but another can be punished by death, though the central government would have to approve that. India has not used the death penalty for several years.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Frank Jack Daniel and Matthias Williams in New Delhi and James Mackenzie and Gavin Jones in Rome; Editing by Ron Popeski