Waiting to go home

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

Peter Bleach, the British national, languishes in a Calcutta jail 10 months after five Latvians who had been jailed along with him in the 1995 Purulia arms drop case were granted a presidential pardon. But pressure is mounting for his release.


EVER since the release of five Latvians convicted in the Purulia arms-drop case, Peter Bleach, serving a life sentence in Kolkata's Presidency Jail after being convicted in the case, has been exploring all possibilities to secure his own release. The five Latvians were granted a presidential pardon on July 22, 2000. Bleach has been consulting his lawyers, preparing files to establish that his detention, while his co-accused had been released, was unfair and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.

Bleach, who has been in prison since December 1995, has now reasons to be optimistic about his release. According to informed sources, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is now likely to personally request Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to release Bleach.

Earlier, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had taken up the issue of Bleach's release with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh when he visited Britain in November 2000. According to reports, Jaswant Singh assured Cook that Bleach's case would be "re-examined". On December 5, nearly five months after five of the convicted persons were released, Cook wrote to Jaswant Singh asking for Bleach's release "on the ground that all those who were convicted with him for the same offence have been released". The letter requested that Bleach be treated in a "non-discriminatory" way. It clarified that the British government did not "condone" his activities, and that its actions were merely in support of Bleach's "consular welfare". As the Indian government did not respond to the letter sent in December, Cook wrote another letter on January 29 asking for an early response for his previous letter. However, no reply was sent to this letter either.

ON the night of December 18, 1995, several wooden boxes containing 11 9 mm pistols, 250 AK-47 assault rifles, 10 rocket launchers, 78 anti-tank grenades and 65 hand grenades were dropped from an Antonov-26 (An-26) aircraft on Bansgarh village in Purulia district. The plane had left Karachi in the afternoon of December 17, refuelled in Varanasi and headed for Kolkata around 10 p.m. It was on its way to Kolkata that the aircraft dropped the arms and ammunition. On December 18, the plane left Kolkata for Phuket, Thailand. Three days later it left Phuket with permission to refuel in Kolkata. However, it landed in Chennai and took off after refuelling. Soon it was found that this was the same aircraft that had dropped arms and ammunition in Purulia. The plane was forced to land in Mumbai and Bleach and the five Latvian crew members - Igor Timmerman, Alexandre Klichine, Igor Moskvitin, Oleg Gaidash and Evgeny Antimenko - were detained. However, Kim Davy, an arms dealer and a key suspect in the case, escaped. He later resurfaced in Denmark. On February 2, 2000, after a long-drawn-out trial, the Calcutta City Sessions and Civil Court, found Bleach and others guilty of indulging in a conspiracy to wage war against the state and other offences, and sentenced them to rigorous imprisonment for life.

Despite Bleach's claim that he was working with the full knowledge of the British intelligence services when he dropped a large cache of arms in Purulia, the British government followed a hands-off policy throughout his trial. On July 22, 2000, three months before Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit, the Latvians-turned-Russians were granted a presidential pardon by the government as a goodwill gesture. Following this, the British government also started pressing for Bleach's release. Home Secretary Jack Straw, during his visit to India in September 2000, took up Bleach's case with Home Minister L.K. Advani and West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. At a press conference in Kolkata, Straw dismissed Bleach's charges that the Blair government had "abandoned" him. Straw said that Bleach was given the same kind of representation and consular services given to any British national in similar circumstances. He said that it was Britain's policy of non-interference in the legal procedures of a democratic country that prevented the government from putting pressure on India to secure Bleach's release. British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Peter Hain, who visited India in November 2000, said that Britain found it difficult to understand why the Indian government still had Peter Bleach imprisoned even after it had released the Russians.

Bleach was reported to have said that he was being discriminated against because he was a British national. He was also reported to have stated that the issue was no longer one of guilt or innocence, but of "equality of justice under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution". On March 3, in a hand-written statement, Bleach wrote: "Under Article 14 of the Constitution of India, as read with Article 21, my continued detention in jail is discriminatory and became illegal the moment the Russian crew were released." In the same vein, British High Commissioner to India, Sir Rob Young has been quoted as saying that there was no reason why Bleach should not be released.

The five released Latvians have also appealed to President K.R. Narayanan for Bleach's release. The letter, written from the Latvian capital of Riga on March 18, said: "We understand that maintaining equality before law in our case means kindly granting Mr. Bleach the same remission and putting him in the same situation. We are sure you would consider this representation to maintain equality before law and promote justice by granting the same remission of sentence to Mr. Bleach."

On March 5, Bleach threatened to fast unto death if his release did not come about in the following two weeks. In an open letter to the Indian authorities with a copy to the British Foreign Office, Bleach wrote: "I am not well and I cannot wait indefinitely. I will start a hunger-strike till death if I am not released within the next 15 days." He said that if anything happens to him, the Indian government would be held responsible. He said that although he had full faith in the Indian legal system, he was being kept in prison, in contravention of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. However, sources said that Bleach chose not to go ahead with his hunger- strike as he felt the British government was doing its best to get him released.

Earlier, in January, Bleach had given a sensational twist to the whole case. In a letter to Gregory Kovrizhenko, deputy chairman of the United Nations Association of Russia, Bleach wrote that the arms and ammunition air-dropped in Purulia was part of an anti-communist conspiracy to dislodge the Left Front government in West Bengal. However, he also mentioned in the letter that he was not certain whether his "hypothesis was correct". "I might be right or completely wrong," Bleach wrote.

Recently, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), in a note to Home Minister L.K. Advani, is reported to have said that Bleach's participation in the conspiracy is far more important a factor than that of the Russians.

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