NEW DELHI — India's federal government told the Supreme Court Monday that it will not use a tough anti-piracy law to prosecute two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen.
The government had earlier given its approval to charge the marines under its controversial Suppression of Unlawful Acts legislation. The officers will now be likely tried under another section of the Indian Penal Code.
Rome had contested the applicability of the anti-piracy law, saying it would be tantamount to treating its personnel as terrorists and Italy as a terrorist state. The European Union and NATO supported Italy's concerns.
"The attorney general (Goolam E Vahanvati) informed the judges that the government will not be invoking the anti-piracy law, that also carried the death penalty," Diljeet Titus, one of the lawyers representing the marines said.
New Delhi and Rome have been locked in a legal and diplomatic battle for the past two years over the deaths.
On Feb. 15, 2012, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone allegedly killed the fishermen, mistaking them for pirates.
The marines were part of the security team of an Italian oil tanker crossing the Indian Ocean. The defendants are out on bail and living in the Italian Embassy in New Delhi.
In Rome, new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told the Senate that he called the marines on the weekend, and complained that they had "for too long been blocked in New Delhi by an absurd and appalling affair."
Before his maiden speech to parliament, Renzi held talks with Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti and Italy's special envoy on the case, Staffan de Mistura. He made a personal commitment to resolve the controversy, but did not elaborate on possible steps.
Pier Ferdinando Casini, chairman of the Senate's foreign affairs committee, called on the Rome government to "seriously consider the path of an international arbitration."
European Parliament President Martin Schulz urged Indian authorities "to apply international law and in particular the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea without delay."
In New Delhi, defense lawyers asked the Supreme Court to entirely dismiss the case against the Italian marines, arguing that the National Investigation Agency no longer had jurisdiction to pursue it.
"The court will, in a hearing two weeks later, examine if the NIA will handle the probe. It will also examine the plea for quashing the case," defense lawyer Suhail Dutta said.
India media reported that Monday's decision was a result of an agreement between the Law Ministry and the Foreign Ministry.
Rome has expressed anger that the marines have been kept in India for two years without any charges being filed, and it has protested the many judicial delays.
Some local media has also been critical of the government's case.
"There is little doubt that the Centre (federal government) has fumbled in handling this case," the Hindustan Times newspaper said in an editorial.
"The indecisiveness of the government has led to a diplomatic standoff with even the EU raising concerns. Nothing but an expeditious trial is what all the people involved in this case want. But for the moment, India seems to be completely at sea on this issue," it said.