India-Italy Relations Worsen; New Delhi May Not Forgive Rome For Blatant Betrayal

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By Raymond Ronamai | March 16, 2013 5:09 PM EST

India-Italy relationship is heading towards a point of no return with the standoff between the countries over Rome's refusal to send back its marines to India for trial in connection with the murder of Indian fishermen getting uglier each passing day.

The good faith the countries enjoyed in the past has taken a beating with India contemplating complete diplomatic ties cut off with Italy if the latter don't keep its assurance to send back its two marines, who were allowed by the Supreme Court to go home for the country's general election held last month.

Interesting, India and Italy had shared good relations till recently in terms of diplomatic ties and trade relations. That Sonia Gandhi, an Italian national and widow of India's former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is currently heading the ruling Congress party had also contributed to the good relations between the two countries.

Notwithstanding the bond between the countries, it is obvious that India is very likely to act tough on Italy for the recent breach of trust. And New Delhi may never forgive Rome for the blatant betrayal if its marines are not sent back to India as assured by its envoy.

India expressed its seriousness in Parliament at the ongoing budget session with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warning Italy of consequences in the relation between the two countries if Italy fails to keep its word. He also requested the Houses to take the matter seriously and act together.

"Our government has already made it clear that these actions of the government of Italy are not acceptable. They violate every rule of diplomatic discourse and call into question solemn commitments given by accredited representative of a government. This cannot, by any standards, be in the interests of any bilateral relationship that has to function on the basis of trust," said the prime minister in Parliament.

"I urge the Italian authorities to respect the undertakings to the Honourable Supreme Court and return the two accused persons to stand trial. We will continue to urge this course of action through diplomatic channels. If they do not keep their word there will be consequences for our relations with Italy," he added.

The Union Home Ministry has alerted all the exit points, including airports to prevent Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving the country.

The move came after the Supreme Court issued notice to Italian envoy not to leave the country. The court had asked Mancini to respond to the notice by Monday and attend a hearing of the case the next day following a plea filed by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy accusing the Italian ambassador for contempt of court.

The government of India has also reportedly told Basant Kumar Gupta, its ambassador-designate to Italy, not to leave for Rome following the controversy. Gupta, who was named the successor to former ambassador Debabrata Saha, was supposed to leave for Rome on Friday.

Hinting that the relation between the countries could be strained further, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said that the government would  take further action after analyzing its relationship with Italy.

The foreign secretary on Tuesday summoned the Italian ambassador and conveyed India's stand on the matter in the strongest of terms saying, "India expects Republic of Italy as a country that is committed to the rule of law to fulfill the sovereign undertaking given by it to the Supreme Court of India".

Meanwhile, foreign minister of Italy, Giulio Terzi told reporters in Israel, "We have juridically solid reasons to proceed in the direction of international arbitration."

Italy insisted that the shooting that took place in February 2012 involving its marines happened in international waters and was therefore outside the jurisdiction of India. However, India argued that the fishermen were shot dead within the Indian Contiguous Zone.

Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone were arrested for alleged murder of two fishermen off the Kerala coast on 15 February last year, while on anti-piracy duty of guarding an Italian oil tanker. They were allowed to stay in Italy for a period of four weeks by the Supreme Court of India only on assurance by the Italian envoy that they would be sent back to India under the care, supervision and control of the Italian Republic after the completion of the stipulated time.

In an unexpected turnaround, Italy conveyed a message to India that it will not send back its marines to India for further trial, causing a furor in India and stalling the proceedings of Parliament.

The present bitter relations could be a culmination of a couple of big scams associated with Italian nationals. Two of the biggest scams - Bofors and VVIP Choppers scams - that rocked world's largest democracy have connections with Italy.

BOFORS SCAM

The Bofors scam was a big corruption scandal that surfaced in the 1980s with several Indian politicians, including the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi were accused of receiving kickbacks from Bofors AB for winning a bid to supply 155 mm field howitzer to India. The company allegedly paid ₹629 million (US$11.65 million) to Indian politicians and defense officials. The scam is believed to be the reason for Congress's defeat in the 1989 general elections.

Interestingly, Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, the accused in the Bofors scandal and family friend of the Gandhis (Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi), left India on the night οf 29 July, 1993, before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) could question and detain him in connection with the case. It was alleged that the release was part of a deal between Sonia Gandhi and the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao.

The CBI finally filed a charge sheet against Quattrocchi in 1999 in connection with the Bofors bribe scam. The case against him was strengthened after Interpol exposed two bank accounts - one belonging to him and the other to his wife Maria with Euros 3 million and $1 million, respectively - which were frozen. The government of India released it in 2006 without the consent of the CBI.

Quattrocchi was arrested in Argentina in 2007 following a warrant by Interpol, but India lost the extradition case with the judge stating that India did not provide proper legal documents. The court also ruled that India pay legal expenses of Quattrocchi's case. The CBI came under severe criticism for not trying hard to ensure his extradition. The case was closed eventually.

VVIP CHOPPER SCAM:

The multi-crore VVIP Chopper Scam, the latest to hit Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, too has Italian connection in Finmeccanica, which is one of the companies alleged to have bribed Indian officials in connection with a 12-helicopter deal.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) signed a 12-helicopter deal in 2010 with helicopter manufacturing company Agusta Westland (AW) owned by Italy's Finmeccanica for ferrying India's VVIPs to high altitude areas. But only three choppers have been delivered so far.

AW denied paying bribes in the deal but an investigation by the Italian authorities has found out that the helicopter manufacturing company had paid a total kickback of ₹3694.97 million approximately ($68.4 million) - ₹2247.23 million to Italian politicians and ₹1447.74 million (26.8 million) to Indians.

The CBI has registered First Information Report (FIR) against 12 people including former IAF chief S.P. Tyagi, former Finmeccanica Chairman Giuseppe Orsi and former AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini. The investigating agency has also named four companies - Finmeccanica, AgustaWestland, IDS Infotech and Aeromatrix - in connection with the scam.

COMPLETE DIPLOMATIC TIES CUT OFF POSSIBLE

Sensing the severity of the standoff between India and Italy, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on both the countries to resolve the issue amicably but the situation seems to be much more severe than many would think.

There are possibilities of the countries cutting off diplomatic ties with each other completely with Italy adamant not to send back the accused marines to India, arguing that they were wrongly detained by the authorities in India.

On the other hand, India has hinted that it would act accordingly if Italy doesn't respect the ruling of the Supreme Court.

"We will. As we take steps will let you know. We have to take steps and there is no question that we won't take steps," External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters when asked if action would be taken against the Italian envoy if Rome doesn't send back the marines back to India as assured.

He added that the Indian government would  take necessary action in accordance with the ruling of the apex court.

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