An Indian residing in Italy recently tweeted to me the top responses he gets. One: Kabir Bedi. Two: Ooh, I always wanted to go to India/Do you do yoga? Three: Send us our marò.

It hasn’t been easy for Indians in Italy since February 2012, when two Italian marines (marò in Italian) were arrested off Kerala’s coast for allegedly shooting dead two local fishermen whom they mistook for pirates. Three years on, as the story inches towards a judicatory climax, Italy is in the throes of a debate that swings between emotive and shrill.

One of the two marò is now at home in the region of Puglia, recovering from health problems. The other is still under house arrest at the Italian ambassador’s residence in Delhi. He is being “treated like a hostage, forced to stay in India although he hasn’t even been indicted”, according to Sir Daniel Bethlehem QC, a lawyer hired by Italy. Bethlehem launched a string of accusations against the Indian justice system during a two-day hearing at the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea earlier this month.

A decision is expected before the end of August, which could, as some speculate, lead to the detention of the marines in a third country. India “has been applying creative law,” the Italian defence team said, “and it treats the two marines as if already found guilty,” even though they haven’t even been officially charged. Opening the hearings in Hamburg, Italian ambassador Francesco Azzarello plainly accused India of “an aggressive stance towards Italy” and of violating diplomatic rights, “something that hadn’t even happened in World War II”.

On their part, lawyers hired by the Indian government (the same ones who got Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic convicted) declared at the tribunal that Delhi doesn’t believe Rome would keep the two marines under arrest if they were returned to Italy to await trial.

Fresh reminders

The extraordinary heat of the Italian summer is now sizzling with this new chapter in the three-year-long tale of the marines Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre. Signs reading “Bring back our marines”, although faded and starchy after so many seasons, still hang outside the windows of many city halls and homes across Italy.

Gone is the memory of the two Italian customs officers who last year walked 279 km across Italy, in a Forrest Gump-like tribute to the marines under arrest. They crossed the peninsula to take their plea to Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican, hoping that the new Pope could achieve what the Italian government hadn’t. Gone too is the memory of Vania and Paola, the wives of the arrested marò, who marched in protest holding banners in front of the prime minister’s residence, the Palazzo Chigi, in Rome.

There are, however, fresh reminders of the two marò.

One of the marines’ daughter, after thoughtful consideration, recently rejected the offer to be flown to a remote island to participate in “I’m a celebrity…get me out of here!” One captive in the family was probably enough, she must’ve realised.

Meanwhile, a summer talk show has resuscitated the issue, now that international law has stepped in. On prime-time live television, a small platoon of retired, white-haired and pot-bellied navy officers stood up to attention and handed over to host Gianni Riotta a flag of St. Marks’ golden lion, before the bickering between right and left wing politicians took off.

Parallels from history

Il Giornale, a gung-ho national daily owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, has injected virulence into the discourse. It unleashed one of its most choleric editorialists, Giuseppe Mele, who compared the fate of “Giro&La” (one of the press nicknames of Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre) to that of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian-born anarchists who were convicted of murder and executed in the United States in 1927.

Even Benito Mussolini’s letter to the US ambassador in Rome asking for clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti proved useless. As did the pleas of Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw, who had mobilised for a re-trial. Fifty years later, Sacco and Vanzetti were found innocent and rehabilitated by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who admitted judicial mistakes. They’ve been commemorated by Joan Baez in Ballad of Nick & Bart and by Woody Guthrie in The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti.

The parallel between the executed Italian anarchists and the two Italian marines has also been drawn by Luca & Paolo, a duo of prime-time comedians, in a rap song scolding the Italian government for not doing enough to “bring back our marò”. It’s a racy comparison that gives you a sense of the climate and confusion in Italy when it comes to “Salvo & Ma,” the other press nickname of the now iconic marines. India, Mele rants on, “has kidnapped Giro&La and has threatened to kidnap the Italian ambassador.”

Mele adds up the numbers and estimates that the Italian government has already spent over 8 million euros (Rs 579 million) in legal fees. And the Hamburg hearings, the latest chapter of this saga, will most likely double this figure. “Italy usually pays ransoms for its citizens, in secret, when they are taken hostage,” writes Mele. “This time, instead, it’s paying lawyers. India is only waiting for the right offer.”