Cross-posted at piracy-law.com
An interesting exchange took place at the High Court of Kerala on Friday between presiding Justice PS Gopinathan and VJ Matthew, counsel for the owner of the Enrica Lexie. Regardless of the level of significance one attributes to Justice Gopinathan’s remarks, the dialogue sheds light on the tension and deep mistrust surrounding the events of February 15th.
Mr. Matthews, representing Dolphin Tankers argued that the Italian marines had to be classified as terrorists in order for the India’s statute implementing the IMO’s SUA Convention (SUA Act) to apply. In response, Justice Gopinathan said, “[t]he firing on Indian fishermen by two Italian marines- Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone-off the Kerala coast was an act of terrorism…As far as victims are concerned, their relatives are concerned, as far as Indians are concerned [the alleged shooting was] a terrorist act.”
To be fair, Justice Gopinathan did not declare the Italian marines terrorists as a matter of law. He merely stated that that is how the general public viewed them. It is nonetheless disturbing for an officer of an Indian High Court to give voice to his private opinion about the facts of a case before him, especially when that opinion deviates so far from reality.
Where Mr. Matthew’s claims are concerned, it is far from certain that the marines must be classified as terrorists for the SUA Act to apply. Although the SUA Convention was passed with the goal of suppressing international terrorism in mind, the Convention seeks to achieve its aim by proscribing acts, not classes of people. Article 3 of the SUA Convention lists the crimes punishable under the Convention, stating that if “any person” “performs an act of violence against a person on board a ship if that act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship,” that person has “commit[ted] an offense” under the Convention. Similarly, the SUA Act states that “whoever unlawfully and intentionally” commits an act of violence against a person on board a ship has violated the Act and is subject to punishment for that act under Indian law.
The words “terror,” “terrorist,” or “terrorism” do not appear at all in the operative clauses of the SUA Convention, nor do they appear in any portion of India’s SUA Act. Thus Mr. Matthew’s argument that legal classification as a terrorist is a prerequisite to be charged under the SUA Act appears at odds with the text of the SUA Act itself and the Convention upon which it is based.
But Justice Gopinathan’s response to Mr. Matthew’s good faith legal claim was far more dubious than the claim itself. Rather than satisfying himself by pointing out that an individual need not be legally classified as a terrorist for the SUA Act to apply, Justice Gopinathan declared by fiat, and counter to all reason, that the Italian marines had indeed committed “an act of terrorism.”
Though some argue that there is simply no internationally recognized definition of terrorism, Judge Antonio Cassese, presiding over the Appeals Chamber at Special Tribunal for Lebanon, announced last year that a definition of terrorism “has gradually emerged” in customary international law. According to the STL, terrorism is defined under customary international law as consisting of the following three elements:
(i) the perpetration of a criminal act (such as murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, arson, and so on), or threatening such an act; (ii) the intent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it; (iii) when the act involves a transnational element.
Of the three enumerated elements, only the third, that the act must involve a transnational element, is clearly present. As for the second, there is no way to argue that the Italian marines fired upon the Indian vessel to spread fear among the Indian population or coerce the Indian government. They were acting as agents of the Italian government charged with the protection of a merchant vessel from the real and credible threat of maritime piracy. The unfortunate deaths of two fishermen do not change the character of the marines’ actions. Finally, it is presently impossible to know whether the Italians’ acts could be considered “murder” under the first prong. That determination can only be made once a competent tribunal establishes that the Italians were in fact the ones who shot the Indians and entertains any affirmative claim of self-defense made by the marines.
Furthermore, the alleged acts of the marines fails to satisfy even the minimal, “core definition” of terrorism propsed by Professor Marcello Di Filippo in the European Journal of International Law. After surveying relevant international and domestic laws and sloughing aside any contested definitional aspect of terrorism, Professor Di Filippo concludes that an act of terrorism requires, at the very least: (i) an act of violence; (ii) when that act is targeted at civilians. According to Di Filippo, this core definition is the absolute minimum standard under which an act could be properly considered terrorism.
Implicit in Di Filippo’s core definition is the requirement that the actor must at least believe that the targets are civilians, and one could even argue that the actor must intend to target the victims because they are civilians. Thus unless the Indian authorities can prove, at minimum, that the Italians knew that the Indians were unarmed before firing upon them, the acts of the marines do not rise to the level of terrorism. Justice Gopinathan’s statement that the marines committed a “terrorist act” accuses the Italians of a crime that does not exist – negligent or reckless terrorism.
An oral pronouncement by a Justice with no legal ramifications is hardly a groundbreaking development in what will surely be an interesting case. It does, however, illustrate the depth of mistrust between the Italians and Indians in this particular instance, with the Italians accusing the Indians of a vast conspiracy involving fabricated evidence and the Indians accusing the Italians of murder and now, apparently, terrorism. We are thus back where we started: waiting for the results of the ballistics report and hoping, perhaps against the available evidence, that cooler heads will prevail and due process will be afforded to all.
 Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Safety of Maritime Navigation and Fixed Platforms on Continental Shelf Act, 2002
 The Preamble of the SUA Convention notes that the state parties are “DEEPLY CONCERNED about the world-wide escalation of acts of terrorism in all its forms.”
 The Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Safety of Maritime Navigation and Fixed Platforms on Continental Shelf Act, 2002 Act No. 69 of 2002, art. 3(1)(a) (Dec. 20, 2002).
 Jean-Marc Sorel, Some Questions About Terrorism and the Fight Against its Financing, 14 Eur. J Int’l L. 365, 368 (2003) (describing the “confused mix” of definitions).
 Interlocutory Decision on the Applicable Law: Terrorism, Conspiracy, Homicide, Perpetration, Cumulative Charging, Case No. STL-11-01/I, at para. 83 (Feb. 16, 2011), available at http://www.stl-tsl.org/x/file/TheRegistry/Library/CaseFiles/chambers/20110216_STL-11-01_R176bis_F0010_AC_Interlocutory_Decision_Filed_EN.pdf
 Marcello Di Filippo, Terrorist Crimes and International Co-Operation: Critical Remarks on the Definition of Terrorism in the Category of International Crimes, 19 Eur. J. Int’l L. 533 (2008).
 Id. at 558-61.