By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Italy opposed on Tuesday India's decision to appoint its anti-terrorism agency to investigate the high-profile case of Italian marines accused of killing two fishermen, over fresh fears the men could face the death penalty.
The accused, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, are charged with murder for shooting the fishermen off the coast of the southern state of Kerala last year while serving as security guards on a cargo ship.
The duo say they fired warning shots at a fishing boat believing it to be a pirate vessel with armed men onboard.
Italy maintains the incident happened in international waters and that the men should be tried on home soil.
Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati said the government had put the anti-terrorism National Investigation Agency (NIA) on the case because the usual investigating body, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), was overburdened.
Italy disputed this, saying that the NIA only had the jurisdiction to investigate terrorist crimes, not regular criminal cases. It feared the NIA would invoke a maritime security law, which attracts a mandatory punishment of death.
"If there is a simple road, why not take it? NIA cannot probe. Especially when India has given an assurance to the Italian government about this," said Italy's senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi. He was referring to an Indian government assurance that the marines would not be executed.
The Supreme Court is due to decide on Monday whether the marines' case should be investigated by the NIA or CBI.
Italy abolished the death penalty in 1947. In the past six months, India has hanged two men convicted of militant attacks.
Vahanvati said the government had now set up a special court to try the Italian marines, as directed by the Supreme Court in its January ruling. He said the NIA would complete all investigations in 60 days, but was ambiguous about what laws the men would be charged under.
Tensions between India and Italy have escalated over the case since the shooting incident in February last year, peaking last month when Italy refused to send the marines back from a home visit. Outraged, India's top court briefly barred the Italian envoy from leaving the country.
Rome returned the marines for trial after New Delhi assured them the men would not be sent to the gallows. Italy's foreign minister resigned after the marines returned to India, saying he did not agree with the decision to send them back.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Michael Perry)