By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has jurisdiction to try two Italian marines charged with killing two fishermen, the country's Supreme Court said in a long-awaiting ruling on Friday, setting the stage for a criminal trial that could further sour ties between India and Italy.
The marines, members of a military security team protecting a cargo ship, Enrica Lexie, say they mistook the fishermen for pirates off the southern Indian state of Kerala in February 2012.
Italy went to the New Delhi Supreme Court last year to challenge India's right to try the sailors, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, arguing that the shooting had taken place in international waters, outside the jurisdiction of Indian courts.
The Supreme Court ruled that Kerala state courts did not have the authority to adjudicate in the case and ordered that a special federal court be set up to try the marines, lawyers who attended the hearing said afterwards.
"The relief for the marines is that at least they won't be prosecuted by Kerala," Diljeet Titus, one of the lawyers representing the Italian marines, told Reuters.
There were no immediate details of the reasons for the court's decision in a case that has caused a diplomatic rift between Italy and India, which have traditionally had good relations.
In Rome, the government said the decision was "encouraging" and that its main objective was to bring the marines home.
MARINES TO CHALLENGE DECISION
Indian authorities had argued that the shooting took place in a "contiguous zone" where Indian law applies. Italian embassy officials declined to comment to reporters outside the court.
"The government of India should ensure that they are brought to the book otherwise nobody will value Indian lives," said Father John Churchill, a priest and relative of 19-year-old Ajesh Binki, one of the slain fishermen, as he welcomed the court's decision.
The Italians have been confined to the Keralan city of Kochi but spent Christmas in Italy after a court allowed them to join their families for the holiday, on condition that they returned to India by January 10, which they did.
The sailors will now be brought from Kochi to the Indian capital, where they will remain in the custody of the Italian embassy. They will have to report to a local police station once a week and their passports will now be surrendered to the Indian government.
Titus said they would challenge Friday's decision in the federal special court, asking once again for the sailors to be tried on home soil.
"We do plan to agitate the issue of jurisdiction at the special court level," Titus told Reuters.
In April, Italy paid $190,000 compensation to each of the victims' families, who then dropped their cases against the marines.
The two sailors, wearing jeans, long-sleeved shirts and sunglasses, made no comment to journalists as they left the police commissioner's office in Kochi, where they are required to report every day as a condition of their bail.
Italy has sought to pile both public and private pressure on the Indian government to allow the marines to be tried at home. Italy's prime minister and other senior officials have made direct appeals to their counterparts in New Delhi.
In October, Ferrari's Formula One team emblazoned its cars with the Italian navy's flag in the Indian Grand Prix in a show of solidarity with the military officers, reigniting Indian anger over the incident.
Attacks on ships have increased in the eastern side of the Arabian Sea, as better security around the Horn of Africa has pushed Somali pirates to range as far as the Maldives. The waters close to India are generally considered safer.
(Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty and Annie Banerji; additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Ross Colvin, Robert Birsel and Ron Popeski)