New Delhi – India’s top court Wednesday granted an Italian marine detained over the killing of two fishermen another three months at home on health grounds in the latest chapter of a legal battle that has caused a diplomatic row.

Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre (right) and Salvatore Girone were detained by Indian authorities over the killing of two fishermen while serving as part of an anti-piracy mission off India's southern Kerala coast in 2012 © AFP/File Vincenzo Pinto
Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre (right) and Salvatore Girone were detained by Indian authorities over the killing of two fishermen while serving as part of an anti-piracy mission off India’s southern Kerala coast in 2012 © AFP/File Vincenzo Pinto

Massimiliano Latorre and his fellow marine Salvatore Girone are accused of shooting the fishermen while protecting an Italian oil tanker as part of an anti-piracy mission off India’s southern Kerala coast in 2012.

The incident, which is now subject to international arbitration, has badly strained relations between Rome and New Delhi, particularly after the two marines overstayed in Italy after being allowed home in early 2013 to vote in general elections.

Both marines were then barred from leaving India again pending a trial, but Latorre was allowed to travel back to Italy in 2014 for medical treatment after he suffered a blood blockage in his brain.

The court on Wednesday extended Latorre’s permission to stay in Italy until April 30.

The other marine, Girone, is living at Italy’s embassy in New Delhi and remains barred from leaving India pending a resolution of the dispute.

Italy initiated arbitration proceedings last year and, in August, a UN body, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), ordered India to suspend court proceedings against the pair.

ITLOS rejected Rome’s request for both marines to be freed immediately pending a final ruling.

The detention of the marines, the murder charges and the long wait for the case to be resolved are sore subjects in Italy with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi regularly flayed by opposition leaders for failing to get both men home.

Italy insists the oil tanker, the MV Enrica Lexie, was in international waters at the time of the incident.

India argues that the case is not a maritime dispute but “a double murder at sea”, in which one fisherman was shot in the head and the other in the stomach.

– ‘No right to rule’ –

In a sign of lingering tensions over the case, Italy’s foreign ministry issued a tetchy reaction to Wednesday’s ruling, emphasising that, in Rome’s view, the Indian court was not entitled to make any ruling on Latorre’s case pending the outcome of the arbitration process.

On the basis of the ITLOS order in August, Italy “maintains that any decision by the Indian Supreme Court related to Fusilier Latorre is excluded and therefore he can remain in Italy for the full duration of the international arbitration process,” the ministry said in a statement.

Italian officials expect ITLOS to make a preliminary ruling in the case before the end of February. If that goes in their favour they hope to bring Girone home pending the final ruling which will follow at a later date.

As well as souring bilateral relations between the two countries, the dispute is seen as having contributed to the stalling of negotiations on a proposed trade and investment agreement between the European Union and India.

Talks on an EU-India deal are due to resume this month at the level of senior officials and Italian officials believe this could help expedite a resolution of the marines row.