KOCHI, Kerala (Reuters) - The Kerala High Court granted bail on Wednesday to two Italian sailors charged with the murder of two Indian fishermen in a case that has caused a major diplomatic rift between Rome and New Delhi.
The two marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, were ordered not to leave Kochi city while awaiting trial. They will be freed once they each pay bail of 10 million rupees, about $200,000. No date has been set for trial but it is expected to start soon.
The sailors were part of a military security team protecting the cargo ship Enrica Lexie from pirate attacks when they opened fire on the fishermen’s boat off the coast of Kerala on February 15. Italian officials say the men mistook the fishermen for pirates.
The picture of what happened that day is still murky, but investigators say what is clear is that the two fishermen were unarmed and posed no threat to the ship. Italian officials said the fishermen ignored warning shots.
The incident has soured relations between Italy and India, with Rome insisting that Latorre and Girone are military personnel and should be tried at home and not in an Indian court. The Indian government says it is a matter for the courts to decide and it will not intervene in the judicial process.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has telephoned his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, several times and dispatched deputy Foreign Minister Staffan de Mistura to India to try to resolve the case diplomatically, all to no avail.
When the marines were formally charged with murder earlier this month, Italy recalled its ambassador for consultations to signal what it said was its “strong displeasure” with the Indian authorities’ handling of the case.
The Italian embassy in New Delhi did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday’s bail hearing.
In April, Italy 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.
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.
Editing by Ross Colvin and Ed Lane