(Adds Home Ministry's refusal to comment, defence lawyer's quote)
By Shyamantha Asokan
NEW DELHI Feb 7 Two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen will not face the death penalty, India's attorney general said on Friday, the latest twist in a case that has tested relations between the two countries.
The sailors, 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 the 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 Supreme Court ruled in January 2013 that a trial would take place in India but charges have not yet been filed, partly because of confusion regarding which law the men should be prosecuted under.
On Monday, the Supreme Court pushed for a final decision from the Indian government on whether the men will be charged under maritime security legislation - an anti-piracy and anti-terrorism act that metes out capital punishment to those who kill someone in their bid to throw a ship off course.
Attorney General Goolam E. Vahanvati told Reuters the men would be tried under the law but the Home Ministry had withdrawn the death penalty as a possible sentence.
The Home Ministry, which must sanction use of the law because it is an anti-terrorism act, declined to comment.
"This is still using an anti-terrorist law and calling these men terrorists," said defence lawyer Viplav Sharma. "This is absolutely unacceptable."
It was also not clear whether the government could opt to sanction some clauses in the law but not others, Sharma said.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano last week called India's handling of the case "contradictory and confusing". Prime Minister Enrico Letta enlisted the European Union, which opposes the death penalty, to put pressure on India. (Reporting by Shyamantha Asokan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)