Friday, March 02, 2012

The Irony In A Legal Standoff Between Italy And (Normally Its Good Friend) India

Posted by Peter Quennell

[Above: Cantilevered fishing nets. There are hundreds of these along the ocean shore and harbor of Kochi.]

Images here are of the beautiful and comparatively wealthy south-west India city of Cochin (Kochi).

Also of an Italian oil tanker, the Enrica Lexie, which was ordered into the Kochi port mid-February by the Indian coastguard. Two Italian marine snipers guarding the tanker en route from Singapore to Egypt had shot two Indian fishermen on a small tuna boat assuming they were pirates.

The marines do seem to have been rather quick on the draw, and in contravention of a new IMO law of the sea saying violence during such incidents must be kept to a minimum. The tanker had apparently already been attacked once that day; shots had apparently been fired then too.

Indian accounts say India has behaved reasonably. The incident was in an area the Indian navy makes a serious effort to keep safe (images also below) even though most ships cruising along the busy sea-lane off Kochi (map below) don’t touch base in India and provide no benefit to the Indian economy. 

The Italian tanker has been released now and is on its way, but the two Italian marines are still under house arrest in the house shown below, while a discussion between the two governments continues over where they should be put on trial.

The Italian government is arguing that as the marines are military personnel therefore Italian military law trumps Indian civil law and they must be put on trial in Italy.

Okay. Now for the irony. Read the posts here and here. The US government made the same argument twice against Italy, and to say the least Italy was not too happy.

Pssst. Don’t tell India.

At bottom: Another Italian ship in trouble in the Indian Ocean. This is the fire-stricken Carnival cruise line ship Costa Allegra (yes that Carnival cruise line) unloading its disconsolate passengers in the Seychelles.


Kerala is the greenest part of southern India and the ricefields among the palm trees are really something. Many catholics live there (both fishermen killed were catholics as were both marines) and also quite a large population of jews.

I once bought a car in Hong Kong and put it on a Russian ship headed to Madras but it needed some repairs and took the car to Cochin instead. One thing I learned out of that is that compulsory rounds of brandy with a Russian crew can cause a hangover that lasts almost a week.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 03/03/12 at 03:24 AM | #

A puzzling situation.

The Indian Ocean is fraught with tension in part because so much of the world’s oil passes in tankers through there.

Some goes east to Asia (as in the case of this ship, which was returning from Singapore empty at the time), and some south round South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope (and on to the US and all the Americas), and some to Europe via the Suez Canal, though most oil to Europe passes through pipelines which mainly go through (erk!) Syria and Iraq (Iraq pipelines were sometimes disabled during the recent Iraq war). 

Usually all ship owners pay for an onboard security team and interested governments (including the US and China) keep one or two naval ships there. This seems the first known case for national military to be riding on the tankers and one wonders if it was fully thought out.

For example why was an Italian marines team on an Italian ship which was not even going to or from Italy? The ship’s home port is Naples and it looks to be not so large that it cannot pass through the Suez Canal but how long is it since it did so? Was the shipping line paying for them? Who was their commanding officer and what was their training and battle plans?

Another irony here is that Indian Ocean piracy might be sharply diminishing, as the Somalia government with American and other help has finally pushed the warlords out of the capital (Mogadishu) and may soon neutralize them altogether. The size of financial demands from the owners of ships pirated has dropped to just several million as the warlords seem to need cash fast.

It is quite possible that India DOES know what happened in those two US-Italy cases linked-to above and why Italy got so ticked. In one (the Dolomites incident) the American air crew was given a slap on the wrist, and in the other case the CIA operatives were not even tried.

The latest on all this is that Italy is promising India that the marines will face charges for voluntary manslaughter in Italy if they get them home. That carries a compulsory minimum sentence of 21 years. Those marines must be feeling very unloved now. India still needs all the outside help it can get, and it seems unlikely they would have sentenced the marines to as much as 21 years.

Perhaps the marines should ask India for political refugeedom! Cochin and Goa would be nice places to live. If you saw the Jason Bourne movies, at the start of the second movie he was living there. They have great scuba diving in the whole huge area (the science fiction writer Arthur Clark who wrote Space Odyssey 2001 lived in Sri Lanka and ran a scuba company there) and the cost of living is really cheap.

Mind you, Italy takes some beating. Sad to see these two nice countries in a fight.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 03/03/12 at 02:20 PM | #

Peter, you appear to forget that the most powerful woman in India is an Italian by birth and is Roman catholic by religion!

By the way, both Cochin and Goa are druggist infested. The local economy thrives on drugs!

If money can’t buy happiness, I guess you’ll just have to rent it.

Posted by chami on 03/03/12 at 04:33 PM | #

There was the case in Pakistan where one CIA agent shot and murdered two innocents in a busy public road. The US claimed that he (I am forgetting the name) is a diplomat and is protected by diplomatic immunity (whatever that may mean). Finally however, it worked out very happily for all.

Newspaper reports say that there are too many US Special Forces in India (of course they are training Indians on Democracy).

Everyone’s in a high place when you’re on your knees.

Posted by chami on 03/03/12 at 04:55 PM | #


Thank you so much for an unbiased view of the situation. As an Indian who has lived in Cochin for quite a few years, I have been watching the political drama unfold with increasing incredulity and sadness for the families of the victims.

When I saw the title of this post, I was a bit apprehensive to read it as I was not really sure what your view would be (not that I am really sure of my views on the matter either). All I know is that I feel incredibly sad for the victims. They were showing the families of the victims in one of the TV shows here and it was really heartbreaking - they are poor people who really did not deserve this. But I am very happy that my faith in your ability to view situations fairly and objectively is not shaken. It has only strengthened my belief in everything else you have said on this site so far as well.


I do agree that drugs are present in Goa and maybe even Cochin, I do not have any personal experience myself. But I have to respectfully beg to differ from your views that they are drug infested. Both are extremely nice places to stay and a majority of the local population do not even stray close to drugs. Of course, there are probably addicts, gangs and you can probably find drugs if you go looking for them, but that probably holds good for more than half of the world. I have stayed in Cochin for many years and I think it’s one of the nicest places to be in. Of course, I do acknowledge that your experience might be different.


Posted by Sara on 03/03/12 at 06:52 PM | #


Being costal area, both Goa and Cochin tend to be hot and humid and summer rains are unpredictable. Winter is more pleasant and life is more tolerable. I always try to interact with the locals and I like the local lifestyle.

Perhaps I should not have used the word “drug-infested” as half the world would have come under the meaning I implied. 20 years back, both the places were dreamlands but today they have become nightmares. Somehow the drug money enters the political system, criminal system and culture. The young people are the most vulnerable and rapes, murders and petty crimes have climbed, some say (I do not have the reference), due to the young foreigners willing to pay any amount for drugs (I am not blaming AK).

My experience is rather marginal: airport to the hotel or guest house by taxi and back. If I can get some time free, I will take a walk in the village market. That is my favourite place. Only once I was approached with some offer that I politely declined.

<b>The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings;
the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.

Posted by chami on 03/03/12 at 07:56 PM | #

Hi Sara and Chami.

Our main poster the Machine in particular has always been moved that our site statistics show that a fair proportion of our readers (over 10%) is in India. We’ve never explored why, assuming this is because of Meredith’s connection, and it might be interesting to hear you on this.

In a world where personal safety seems a diminishing asset India is still far above average in safety even though the occasional yelling reminds me of NY! It was surprising wandering around the many ancient soapstone temples between Cochin and Bangalore that there were no guards, and dozens of carved figures one could have walked out with.

Thats a dak bungalow right? The marines could have been a treated a lot worse than that.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 03/04/12 at 02:53 PM | #

Captain Umberto Vitelli, meet Captain Francesco Schettino? It now seems the ship’s captain could have calmed Italian reactions very quickly by conceding that he did several things wrong.

He seems to have put the ship in the wrong place, come far too close to a fishing vessel, invented a radioed pirate alert, allowed shooting long before it was absolutely necessary, and did not switch the bridge’s voice recorder to preserve permanently what was said there. One report on this:

But Italian opinion toward India seems to be adjusting quickly, much quicker than American opinion ever did toward Italy in Meredith’s case.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 03/04/12 at 03:27 PM | #


I must first profess my ignorance: I have no idea.

With more than 10% of the world population, it is no wonder that more than 10% of Indians will be interested in an crime that has attracted world attention. Days after the crime took place, I commented to my Italian friend “She has an infectious Indian smile: have you ever seen a British girl smile like that? Even in a movie?”

One of my German friend commented that the Indian media, particularly the TV, reports fairly aggressively on international affairs. Many of the news channels are locally owned and are “fearless” and “unbiased” in their reports. Even if I assume that this is a personal and highly subjective opinion, Indian media is believed to be as free as it can be and more importantly, is not driven by any political agenda. While it is true that the nexus between the politician and the media is significant, the relationship is largely symbiotic.

Italy has claimed that the two arrested are members of the Italian defence forces but has not released the full details of the incident, i.e., the Italian version of what happened.

Indians value the relationship with Italy and the incident will be slowly “carpeted”- no official announcements will be forthcoming.

Americans made the mistake of shouting from the roof about the innocence of “Raymond Davis” on what happened in Pakistan sometime back. Italy is not going to repeat that mistake. Both India and Italy are practical and understanding nations.

For every vision there is an equal and opposite revision.

Posted by chami on 03/04/12 at 07:01 PM | #


Italian law does not allow for mercenaries or private contractors on board Italian ships,
therefore the military from IL Reggimento “San Marco”. No they are not paid by the company that owns the ship but by the Navy. There were six men, Italian media has not released the name of the other four. On the Costa Allegra there where also six of our military on board. As for their training it is considered one of the most arduous of all the branches of the Italian military. Below is a wikipedia piece on their training. Sorry it’s in Italian. Hope that answers some of your questions.


Gli operativi del San Marco sono scelti tra i VFP4 della scuola sottufficiali della Marina Militare di Taranto.

Dopo un periodo di incorporamento di due settimane, vi è un primo corso di 4/5 settimane per la selezione degli idonei, che vengono inviati alla caserma Carlotto per il corso gestito dal Battaglione Scuole Caorle. L’addestramento prevede una prima fase di otto settimane per l’addestramento fisico, e una seconda di 12 settimane che comprende i corsi tecnici. In questa seconda fase i soldati vengono addestrati alle varie specializzazioni (mortaista, missilista, assaltatore e pioniere).

I soldati idonei prima di poter essere mandati in azione devono partecipare a due esercitazioni su scala nazionale o NATO.

Gli ufficiali sono reclutati dai Corsi Normali e Speciali del corpo di stato maggiore dell’Accademia Navale: per i Ruoli Normali si chiede al 4º anno di voler prendere la qualificazione anfibia. Terminati gli studi in accademia, previa visita medica (che si ricorda, fanno anche i volontari e i sottufficiali), si viene inviati a Brindisi per un anno ultimando la preparazione per un ulteriore anno negli USA, a Quantico Marines Base (Virginia) con gli US Marines ed i Royal Marines.

L’addestramento degli ufficiali e dei sottufficiali, in Italia e negli USA, è uno dei più duri tra le forze armate italiane e sicuramente il più arduo di tutti i corpi armati ad eccezione degli incursori - GOI di comsubin e 9º col moschin.

Posted by Miriam on 03/04/12 at 07:35 PM | #

Personally speaking, I happened to visit truejustice when I was discussing the case with a friend and he told me to check it out. We Indians tend to do a lot of information forwarding (“check out this link, check out that site” etc etc). Its not uncommon for people to even use their official ids to forward such links and information. 

I was fed up of all the reports from American media portraying AK as a saint and I wanted to get some real information as against the PR crap. I started visiting the site regularly for the honest, objective, unbiased updates. I do not really know if it has anything to do with Meredith’s Indian connections or not, in my case at least I would say not! I have never really thought about her in that sense - she was born and brought up in England, probably never visited India and even Arline belonged to a place which is no longer a part of India (The Pakistani city Lahore, if I am not wrong). You will rarely find any Indians who associate Lahore with India anymore, even though once upon a time, it was.

I think for me, it was more to do with Meredith herself. After reading about her and the kind of person she was and looking at her photos, I don’t think it is possible for anyone to remain unaffected. More over, I don’t think a majority of Indians would buy the “poor little harassed American” act at all. Add to that, the political and social situations in India are often so complex that most people and especially the media, refuse to believe unreasonable reports and go digging deeper. A look at some of the articles and readers’ comments on Indian news portals will reveal this, I would have really liked to see a report saying “AK was harassed, she pointed someone else bcoz she was stressed etc etc”. It would probably have been torn to pieces.

In fact, come to think of it, I feel the 10% figure is relatively on the lower side. If the case had been covered in depth in Indian media, I think the readership for truejustice would have been far far more. Many posts would have probably gone viral. In fact, that makes me believe even more that most people aren’t really aware of Meredith’s Indian connections. A quick search of some similar local case like Aarushi Talwar will reveal what I mean. The entire nation was obsessed with it for about 2 years- still is,to a large extent. On the other hand, I have not really seen many articles about Meredith in the local media. There was a very small piece when AK and RS were released last October but I haven’t seen anything after that, which is a pity. I truly believe that sympathy would have been completely for the Kerchers if the case had been covered here.

The Marine sniper case, however, is a completely different story. Most newspapers have been carrying it as their front page articles for the last few days.


I can see what you mean about the weather. People from other countries tend to find summer in places like Cochin and Goa unbearable. But if you think that’s hot, you should visit Chennai 😊. I am used to it, being born and largely brought up in India, so I don’t find it so awful. Anyway, let me assure you that there is still a very pleasant side to the cities as well. Being an Indian myself, I must confess that I have no experience of what the outsiders probably experience and most probably, your friend is right in that. However, if you don’t go looking for trouble and have someone who knows the places and language with you, visiting most Indian cities (Cochin and Goa very much included) can prove to be a very enjoyable and enriching experience - at least that’s what most of my foreigner friends whom I take around the places claim 😊


Posted by Sara on 03/04/12 at 08:04 PM | #
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