(Alessandra Nucci) In February 2012 two fishermen were allegedly shot by Italian marines, off the shores of Kerala, in Southern India.
The bodies of Ajesh Binki, 25, from Tamil Nadu and Gelastine, 45, from Kerala, were brought home on a fishing boat named Saint Antony, after dusk, on February 15th 2012.
The authorities in Kerala pinned the blame for their deaths on two Italian marines escorting an oil tanker, the Enrica Lexie, across the Indian Ocean because, out of four merchant ships that the Coast Guard singled out on their radar, it was the only one that reported being involved in a piracy incident.
But the captain of the Lexie and the marines deny having had anything to do with the Indian fishing boat, which was different in shape and color than the one they were accosted by. Their incident occurred 30 mi. away from the Indian coast, in international waters, much further south than the Saint Antony’s position was reported to be.
The Lexie was approached at 4pm, local time, and the marines, who were on board to protect the ship, fired warning shots into the water. The shots were enough to dissuade the boat from coming any nearer, and that was the end of it.
The Indian Coast Guard boasted of having used an ingenious ‘tactic’ to divert the ship to Kochi. (see The Hindu, Feb 18, 2012 http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2904586.ece )
When alerted by the police that two dead bodies had been found on a fishing boat named the Saint Anthony, the Coast Guard picked up, out of numerous blips on the radar, four ships within a radius of 40 to 60 nautical miles from the spot where the incident was reported to have occurred. They radioed these four ships, asking if they had been involved in a piracy incident. OnlyEnrica Lexie responded positively.
This was enough to prompt the Indian authorities to demand that the ship go to the port of Kochi and the anti-piracy team be disembarked for interrogation.
The Italian ship, crew and diplomatic authorities complied, foolishly thinking that all they were accepting was a loss of time: the time necessary to go over the evidence with the Indian authorities and then take their leave.
That was five months ago. When they disembarked they were greeted by an angry crowd which had already made their minds up that it was they who were to blame for the two deaths, and the two marines soon found themselves under arrest.
The International Maritime Bureau reports that on that same day, in the same whereabouts, there was a pirate attack against another ship, which resembled the Enrica Lexie, a Greek cargo ship named Olympic Flair.
The Olympic Flair was about 2 miles from the coast, the same distance reported by the survivors of the fishing boat, and at the time of the reported death of the two fishermen.
Yet the Olympic Flair was not among the four ships radioed by the Indian Coast Guard.
Neither this nor any of the innumerable misfits between the circumstances of the fishermen’s death and those of the piracy incident reported by the Enrica Lexie have managed to sway the Indian authorities in their determination.
They fired their shots from 100 metres away, using a Beretta AR 70/90 rifle, which centers a target from up to 300 metres away. Are the Indian authorities claiming that soldiers (military, not mercenary ) of a foreign country, working to earn a living for their family back home, for some insane reason should aim to purposely shoot and kill two different unknown men on a harmless fishing boat? Yes, they are. They not only claim that it was the Italian marines who killed the fishermen, but that they purposely took aim and shot at two men they didn’t even know – like killers shooting an intended victim. These marines are over thirty, and are experienced professional soldiers, personally known to be very reliable. If they, their team, their crew and their captain say they shot into the water, they deserve to be believed until proven otherwise.
Yet they are now under trial, in Kerala, for murder. A guilty verdict could entail the death penalty.
A Defense Made Impossible
The two marines were in internatinal waters, therefore India has no right to try them. But the Indian authorities won’t even talk about the position of the ships resulting from the Ais, Automatic Identification System, an international system of certification of the position of ships.
An autopsy or an at least superficial examination of the victims’ bodies could have established what kind of bullet hit them, at what angle and if the shots were direct or on the rebound. But the Indian authorities refused to allow the Italian authorities to examine the bodies of the fishermen. And these have now been cremated.
The Indian physician who did do an autopsy, a professor Sasikala, identified the bullet found in one of the bodies in a cryptic way: by giving its circumference rather than stating its calibre. This circumference, however, could be calculated to correspond to calibre 7.62 bullets, a type which was not available to the Italian military on board the Lexie.
Later, however, even this figure was “corrected”, and Prof. Sasikala was no longer authorized to speak to the media. The Indian court had ballistic “tests” done to see if the bullets could have been shot by the Italian rifles, but they wouldn’t let the Italians take part in them but only stand by as observers. The resulting ballistic report attributed the deaths not to the 7.62 calibre bullets but to 5.56 mm bullets…. which are compatible with Nato rifles, used by the Italians.
One more outrage: the fishing boat, which was the marines’ last hope to provide proof that it wasn’t they who did the killing, has been sunk. This way the residue of gunpowder will have been washed away and the bullet holes too can be eroded by the salt water and no longer correspond to the size of the bullets that were used.
The traces of the trajectory of the bullets would have been proof one way or the other. The shots were fired horizontally, which means they came from a ship that was as tall as the Saint Antony, probably a motorboat from Sri Lanka. NOT from above, as would have been the case if they had been fired from the Enrica Lexie
The owner of the ship, cashed in 30 thousand euros from Italy for damages, and on May 10th he obtained the boat’s release by the Kollam Court of justice, claiming that the boat was his only means for earning a living. At the same time, in statements to the press, he was declaring that after the events of Feb 15th nobody wanted to board it any longer. Consequently, he was free to remove the Saint Antony’s motor and equipment and just leave the wooden hulk anchored in the port of Neendakara, in awful conditions. By the beginning of June the boat was already semi-sunk. On the 23rd of the same month it was brought aground by a team of 12 longshoremen from Kavanad, the residue of gunpowder has now been washed clean and the salt water will also have eroded the perforations of the gun shots.
So now the only “proof” is the controversial report drawn up by the Kerala police.
Five months after they were unduly handed over to the Indian authorities, the Italian marines are on trial in Kollam. The latest in the long series of outrages is that they haven’t even been granted a translation into Italian of the charges filed against them ! Judge Pd Rajan replied that they don’t need a translation because the lawyers know both English and the local language, Malayam.
But the defendants themselves speak Italian, and they will not even be able to know exactly what the case against them is until the hearing in court.