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Top Indian court to rule on charges Italian marines should face

Italian sailors Salvatore Girone (R) and Massimiliano Latorre leave the police commissioner office in the southern Indian city of Kochi Janu
Italian sailors Salvatore Girone (R) and Massimiliano Latorre leave the police commissioner office in the southern Indian city of Kochi Janu

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's Supreme Court will hold a hearing next week on whether two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen can be charged under a strict anti-piracy law, in a case that has damaged ties between the two countries.

India's government has given its approval to an investigation agency to charge the sailors under its maritime security law, but said it would not seek the death penalty if they were found guilty.

Italy strongly opposes India invoking the law, arguing that it would equate to treating the men as terrorists.

"The charge proposed by the Indian authorities is unacceptable," Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said in a tweet after Monday's hearing. "We totally reject the use of the concept of terrorism. Italy and the EU will respond."

The Supreme Court said on Monday it would hold a hearing on February 18 to decide how the case should proceed, but it was uncertain whether a ruling would be made the same day.

The marines, part of a military security team protecting a cargo ship, say they mistook the fishermen for pirates and fired warning shots into the water during the incident in February 2012 off the coast of India's southern state of Kerala.

Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone deny killing anyone or aiming directly at the fishing boat. They are on bail but cannot leave India.

The Italian government approached India's Supreme Court last month to demand that the marines be allowed to return home, given that charges are yet to be filed two years after the alleged incident. It also sought to block use of the anti-piracy law.

(Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty and Shyamantha Asokan, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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