Italians facing Indian fishermen murder charges

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Six Italian armed guards face murder charges after shooting dead two Indian fishermen they mistakenly identified as pirates. The accused remain aboard MV Enrica Lexie, the oil tanker they were protecting.

File photo of Kochi shipyards; the oil tanker sits anchored near the city.
Image: Ranjithsiji.

Exact details are disputed; Italian authorities insist the vessels were in international waters at the time. Indian officials say the shooting took place in Indian territorial waters.

Following the incident near Alappuzha, in the state of Kerala, two coast guard boats and an aircraft intercepted the laden ship, which was en-route to Egypt from Singapore. Nineteen of the 34 crew are Indian. The ship is under surveillance and anchored near the port of Kochi after being escorted there by the navy and coast guard.

Local police commissioner M.K. Ajithkumar has sent a letter to the captain of MV Enrica Lexie, ordering the handing over of the accused along with the ship's logbook. Ministers and Interpol have received copies of the letter. A fellow police officer, P Chandrasekharan, said: "We will treat it like any other murder case". Officers have visited the ship, which Ajithkumar says will have to remain where it is during the investigation.

Italian authorities in India are attempting dialogue on behalf of the crew, but "Till further orders from the ministry we will not engage in any talks," said advocate VJ Mathews, who is working with the Italians. The letter to the captain also went to the Italian foreign ministry, and the Italian ambassador has been summoned over the incident. Indian defence minister A.K. Antony called events "very serious" and "unfortunate", promising action would be taken.

Chandrashekhar described the event thus: "The fishermen did not fire at the ship. They couldn't have been mistaken for pirates. The Indian trawler was 100m from the ship. The trawler wanted the ship to pass." Nine other crew were sleeping on the fishing boat. The state has approved 500,000 rupees (US$10,125; £6,450) for each dead man's family.

The Italians say they fired warning shots before targeting the trawler they misidentified as a pirate boat. Two bullets have been recovered from the smaller vessel, which one local official said had no weapons aboard.