Open-hearted pilgrims beaten down by bad gust of fate — disturbing traveller’s tale

<<UPDATE: Tomaso and Elisabetta have been released by the Indian Supreme Court and their convictions overturned this February. They have since returned to Italy. Tomaso’s Facebook page shows him living in London.>>

“… be just, and if you can’t be just – be arbitrary.”

– Bill Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Tomaso Bruno: 30, Albenga-born (life sentence, Varanasi District Jail)

Elisabetta Boncompagni: 39, Turin-born (life sentence, Varanasi District Jail)

Francesco Montis, aka Kekko: Terralba-born (dead at 30, cremated)

-photos courtesy of Marina Maurizio

Backpacking through India in the hopes of finding one’s soul may turn out a worse trip than first imagined – and just after general elections in the world’s biggest democracy some of the reasons for this are well worth pointing out.

Tomaso Bruno, Francesco Montis and Elisabetta Boncompagni were living in London before taking that pilgrimage. Squatters and keen ravers, they were a fixture at parties and are still well known among the Italians within the capital’s crusty bohemia. Francesco and Elisabetta were in a longterm relationship at the time.

It was December 28, 2009 when the three arrived in India. A month later, on the 31st of January 2010 they checked in at Hotel Buddha, Varanasi. They were sharing the same room and the same bed, which seemed peculiar to the hotel staff.

Three days later, Francesco was dead.

On February 7th, Tomaso and Elsabetta were placed under arrest and charged with murder. The autopsy – carried out by one R. K. Singh, ophthalmologist with coroner’s training – concluded Francesco died by asphyxiation through strangulation. During trial, another autopsy was commissioned to be performed by the same man – on a decaying body with multiple bitemarks seemingly from the rats which were swarming the place his remains had been kept in. The conclusion of this autopsy was the same, except that death did not occur by strangulation, but by asphyxiation with a blunt object which was never found. Court papers seen by your humble correspondent indicate that the initial conclusion of the second autopsy was that Francesco’s had not been a violent death, but this was swiftly changed before the report was presented in court.

Francesco had a deep, growling cough and was a chain smoker prone to extreme fatigue – which may explain asphyxiation. Also, a hematoma the size of the one found on his brain could have been fatal by itself according to doctors who saw the reports and gave their opinion to Italian press. But the hematoma might well have been the result of a head injury he suffered on a trip to the Hampi waterfall a month earlier: “Once arrived, we wanted to bathe there and we started to climb the rocks which were slippery because of the water coming from the fall. The poor Kekko [ie Francesco] was behind me and he slipped, falling in the middle of the rocks. I remember that the fall was a very bad one and I saw him really suffering. Kekko had many problems to climb all the stairs back and he really spent a huge time to reach the bus,” wrote in a letter Roberta Cicerchia, a backpacker friend of theirs who was never called to testify.

All that’s left now are the paper reports, as Francesco’s remains have been cremated at the behest of police commissioner Sagir Ahmad, a month or so after he arrested the two.

Tomaso and Elisabetta’s lawyer, Mr Vibu Shankar, oddly figures as the only defence witness, while the prosecution summoned more than a dozen. Why? “The court asked me to step forward and say what I knew about them,” he explained on the phone.

The motive for murder invoked by prosecution was a love triangle (“illegal intimacy”) which in their view lead to a crime of passion. The judge didn’t buy it despite the insinuations of the hotel staff, who were apparently beyond baffled to see three people sleeping in the same bed. The only piece of final proof that could have settled it was CCTV footage from the hotel’s premises, which was somehow never found for presentation in court.

The two were found guilty on July 23rd 2011 based on circumstantial evidence in a trial riddled with deferrals, half held in Hindi – which neither Tomaso nor Elisabetta can speak. There was no interpreter available at that stage. The prosecutor wanted the death penalty – usually reserved for terrorists. The sentence given was life imprisonment, under the sole premise of ‘the last seen theory,’ meaning that by arithmetic elimination, whoever the court thought last saw the dead man alive must’ve been the killer.

Appeal was filed immediately and granted.

In the defendants’ version of events, Francesco was feeling ill the evening before his death after they had some heroin and some hash, which were purchased from the streets of Varanasi. There is no indication of the autopsy even looking for drugs, let alone finding any. The next morning, when Tomaso and Elisabetta returned from an early walk to a tourist spot, they found their friend dying and called the ambulance.

They had a window of at least six hours to flee, had they known what was to follow. Francesco was pronounced dead at the hospital, not the hotel room where he’d been found apparently still struggling to breathe.The exact time of death is unclear; the autopsy report says Francesco Montis “died about three days ago”.

Indian courts are shut for about 150 days a year and that’s not counting the strikes or delays due to judges’ personal holidays or prosecutorial indisposition. Seven out of ten inmates in India’s chaotic prison system are being held pending trial at any given moment.

Between August 2011 and September 2012 an appeal trial took place at the High Court, ending in failure for the two. After this, the Italian government took a more active role in the matter, one official representative declaring that “it is widely demonstrated that this is not a murder case”. The Italian Embassy then put Mukul Rohatgi, one of India’s top councillors on the case. There was a meeting this Jan 14th between Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi and the families of the condemned, in which he assured them of his “commitment to the resolution of the case in both [his] official and personal capacities.”

A request for a request for appeal was allowed in Nov 2012 and a preliminary hearing for a preliminary appeal hearing was held next February, setting the next preliminary hearing for September 3rd 2013. However, on this anxiously-anticipated date the state prosecutor failed to make an appearance. No explanation was given and the case got automatically postponed.

The conditions in the penitentiary are unconfirmed: media reportage and official pleas seen by yours truly say the water is undrinkable, the toilets squalid more often than not and the sleeping barracks overcrowded. On the other hand, the lawyer hired by Marina Maurizio, Tomaso’s mother, to deliver letters and food to the two at the District Jail of Varanasi every Sunday (postal service unreliable) said that “they’ve got everything. Food is good, drinking water is good, no problem.” When asked if a journalist could speak to them directly he was vehement that there are no phones and all communications with the outside world are banned in the prison save for visitors and handwritten letters.

Mukul Rohatgi is also Italy’s lawyer in the much-touted case of the two Italian marines shooting a pair of fishermen down off the Keralan coast earlier last year because they mistook them for pirates. Under the protection of the Embassy, the servicemen fled to Italy “to vote” and wouldn’t return to face Indian justice, prompting the Indian government to explicitly bar the Italian Ambassador in Delhi from leaving the country.

Mukul’s son Nikhil – himself an active part of the defence, downplayed the role of Italian diplomacy in the case of Tomaso and Elisabetta: “Sure they’re [ie the Italian government] interested in it, but more at a personal level as the embassy helped them find a lawyer. Not anything at diplomatic level.”

Tensions have been rife between the two countries lately. Before the trigger happy marines, a corruption scandal tainted the purchasing of a bunch of helicopter gunships from Italian-based Finmeccanica. Their PR man, one David Cameron, grovelled about it on his 2013 visit to India. Now Britain is about to start corruption proceedings. The Indian press is speculating that all the extraneous factors might put unforeseen pressure on Tomaso and Elisabetta’s case, making the set date less than ‘auspicious,’ as it were. Meanwhile, three different Italian ambassadors have paraded through Delhi in the past three years and foreign minister Giulio Terzi quit over the fishermen’s killing a month after reassuring Tomaso and Elisabetta of his support.

It’s now down to the makeshift charity set up in Italy by Elisabetta and Tomaso’s family and friends to look after their own, as the Italian officials are still busy clearing up the embarrassment caused by their two grunts.

Despite the fact that a new prisoner exchange agreement came into effect in April 2013 potentially allowing Tomaso and Elisabetta to do the rest of their sentence in Italy, Nikhil seemed uninterested in pursuing this course. “I’ll have to examine if this agreement also applies to offenses committed in the past. I couldn’t say at the moment.” The “best case scenario” for the hearing would be to have the appeal admitted in the Supreme Court, after which a further trial date will be set. Last we spoke in June 2013 he confirmed he had “a lot of hope” to see them free.

Over a year pased since and they’re still locked up.

The cost on the families so far is around €400,000, of which the Italian Embassy provided €20,000. Indeed, the Embassy had been informed promptly of the murder accusations back in 2010, but sadly there were no handy Italian elections to vote in at the time so the two civilians had to be abandoned to the frantic tentacles of Kali.

An Italian mockney with a thick scar from the left corner of his mouth up to the lower ear lobe who calls himself Jimmy (he’s in fact Giacomo), knew the three well whilst they lived in London. “Kekko and I are from the same village in Sardinia. He used to take a lot of heroin and ketamine and other drugs. He was ill and had a bad cough. Everyone thinks they’re innocent [i.e. Tomaso & Elisabeta], even his parents,” he told me in Stepney last year.

“A door had opened,” Marina, Tomaso’s mum, optimistically noted at one point. The kafkaesque atmosphere surrounding this case is inescapable to everyone except a loving mother, and the frustration felt by whoever has anything to do with this case stands to good reason. A door to another door, perhaps…

Apathetic lawyers, prejudice, half-assed procedures and constant delays and deferrals have contributed to a situation where reasonable doubt could potentially have been easily established from the getgo.

For Tomaso and Elisabetta it’s infinitely harder now to overturn a life sentence and a guilty verdict than it would have been for lawyer Vibu Shankar to prove their innocence – or at least lack of irrefutable guilt – when the trial wasn’t getting any publicity.

Not wishing to make any untoward waves, Marina cautioned the 7000+ followers of the Facebook group set up in empathy for Tomaso and Elisabetta to “accept [the latest delay] and especially avoid disrespectful comments towards India and its institutions.”

The dice game is still on and the stakes are as high as they ever were prior to so many false starts. “The case was listed for Tuesday, 22 October… the case number, as always, will be assigned only Saturday, October 19,” Marina wrote with resignation. October came and went.

As for our two luckless travellers, their fate as yet is inextricably linked to the perpetual lottery that is the Indian judiciary: this May, when another hearing was scheduled, they drew another dud. It’s another September again.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014.

Deferred due to the whole Indian judiciary breaking for the summer.

The queue at the bookie’s is around the block, but not many appear eager to lay a bet at presstime.

– the article will be updated with new developments as they emerge

– this article first appeared on, my former website and failed entrepreneurial project

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