In a volte-face that might seal the fate of the case pertaining to the killing of two Indian fishermen in gunfire from an Italian oil tanker, Freddy J, owner of the boat on which the fishermen were killed and prime witness, reversed his earlier position saying he had not seen whether the killer bullets had come from the Italian ship, after accepting Rs 17 lakh as compensation from Italy.
In an agreement signed with the Italian authorities in the Lok Adalat in Kochi on Friday, Freddy corrected his earlier statement to the police that the Italian Marines had fired at his boat and the fishermen on it brutally and deliberately. Freddy withdrew the petition he had filed in the court after the Lok Adalat gave approval to the agreement between him and Italy.
Stating that the two accused Italian Marines need not be put on trial, Freddy said that he was in deep sleep when the incident took place. Outside the Lok Adalat, Freddy told newsmen, “I didn’t see (whether it was the Italians who opened fire). At that time, I did not know anything. It was only later we came to know (that the ship involved was Italian Enrica Lexie),” he said.
Immediately after the firing incident on February 15, Freddy, on the basis of whose statement the FIR in the case was prepared, had given a moment-by-moment sketch of how the Italian Marines had ruthlessly shot to death fishermen Valentine alias Jelestine (48) and Ajesh Binku (25), who were at work on his boat, St Antony’s.
With Freddy’s volte-face and the withdrawal earlier by legal heirs of the two murdered fishermen from all the cases they had been pursuing, the criminal case built by State could get weakened, according to legal experts, though Kerala Director General of Prosecutions T Asif Ali remained confident that the reversals of statements would not affect the criminal case.
On Friday afternoon, Freddy, who had earlier submitted an application in the Kerala High Court for permission to transfer his petition seeking compensation to the Lok Adalat as there was a chance of out-of-the-court settlement, accepted a bank demand draft for Rs 17 lakh from the Italian authorities as compensation for the damage his boat suffered and for ending his case.
The boat-owner had impleaded in the case against the Italians demanding a compensation of Rs 72,60,000 but the Italian authorities had first offered him a mere Rs 500,000, which was later enhanced to Rs 17 lakh in the aftermath of the compensation agreement they had reached at with the relatives of the two murdered fishermen.
“This is not the first time a witness is reversing his statement in a case but one must bear in mind the peculiarities of this case,” said a senior High Court lawyer. “One can understand the urgency of the relatives of the dead fishermen to strike a deal with Italy but it is totally different with Freddy. It seems that the Italian authorities have lured him into a compensation trap,” he said.
The most vehement voice one heard against Italy’s justifications for the February 15 murders off the Kerala coast was Freddy’s when he said that no warnings had been issued by the ship before opening fire. “I understood what was happening only after seeing Jelestine writhing in pain with blood gushing out of his body after being hit by a hail of bullets,” he had said on February 16.
“Bullets were coming towards us like rain from the ship despite our repeated calls for ceasefire. When I felt that they would kill us all, I asked my men to lie down on the floor of the boat. As the boat lost control, I took up driving and it was then Binku was hit. The firing from the ship was so intense that nobody could approach Binku,” he said.
On Tuesday, Dora Valentine, widow of Jelestine, and Abhinaya and Aguna, sisters of Ajesh Binku, had entered into an agreement with Italy to withdraw from all the cases they had been pursuing for a compensation of Rs 1 crore each. They also stated in the pact that they would not initiate any case in this regard in India, Italy or anywhere else in the future.