NEW DELHI — Italy signalled Monday it was considering turning to a United Nations tribunal after Indian prosecutors invoked a tough anti-piracy law to prosecute two Italian marines accused of killing Indian fishermen.
Italian daily La Repubblica said Rome was ready to challenge India's sovereignty over the case before the UN's International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, based in Hamburg, Germany. It added that it might also recall its ambassador in New Delhi.
Responding to a specific question about the UN appeal, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said: "These are possible steps, everything is on the table."
Pierferdinando Casini, chairman of the Senate foreign affairs committee, was more blunt. "India has taken advantage of the loyalty of Italy and of our marines. Enough. The UN must intervene. Let's bring them home," he wrote on Twitter.
Defence Minister Mario Mauro was in New Delhi to support the accused. He complained about them being kept in India for two years without any charges being filed, saying it "clashes against the rule of law and proper relations between two sovereign democracies."
Bonino spoke from Brussels, before attending a meeting with European Union counterparts. She said she was "sure" that the bloc would support Italy's position.
"What's concerning me most is that legislation that appears to be being used suggests that somehow this is about terrorism. And this has enormous implications for Italy, but also enormous implications for all countries engaged in activities that are anti-piracy," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the talks.
At a Supreme Court hearing in New Delhi, where the Indian government had to present charges against the Italians, Attorney General Goolam E Vahanvati invoked a provision of the Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) law that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.
Diljeet Titus, one of the lawyers defending the marines, said that the court would hear further arguments on February 18 and likely decide on the charges. They also have to consider an Italy request to let the marines go home until the start of the trial.
Indian prosecutors have met Italian demands not to invoke the death penalty, which was possible under another section of the SUA law. But Rome says any application of the anti-piracy law is unacceptable."
In a statement, the Italian government deemed it "absolutely disproportionate and incomprehensible" because "it assimilates the incident to an act of terrorism. Italy is not a terrorist country."
If charges were to be pressed under SUA legislation, "it would have negative consequences on relations with Italy and the European Union, with equally negative repercussions on the global fight against piracy," Italy warned.
The dispute dates back to February 15, 2012 when Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone allegedly killed two Indian fishermen, mistaking them for pirates. The soldiers were part of the security team of an Italian oil tanker crossing the Indian Ocean.
The incident is said to have taken place 20.5 nautical miles (38 kilometers) from India's shore, outside of its territorial waters but inside its so-called "contiguous zone" — an area on which New Delhi can claim at least some legal control.
The case raises several legal questions, such as whether it should be dealt with by Indian, Italian or international courts, and whether soldiers deployed on a commercial vessel can claim sovereign immunity, like when they serve in a regular military missions.
The marines claim they fired warning shots and never aimed directly at the fishermen's boat. Italian-made bullets were found un the victims' bodies, but there are doubts on whether they are compatible with Latorre and Girone's weapons.
La Repubblica, citing a confidential Italian Navy investigation, suggested in April that the shots were fired by the rifles of two other marines, who have returned to Italy. The accused may have taken the blame for them, being the highest-ranking officers on the oil tanker.