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Phone fine print fells foreign trio

- Team fails to show permit to use gadget
One of the three arrested foreigners in Jalpaiguri on Sunday. Picture by Biplab Basak

Jalpaiguri, Feb. 9: A foreign reality TV show’s crew today tripped on red tape when its organisers were arrested for using satellite phones without permission from authorities in India.

According to police, 22 satellite phones were found in the possession of the team of Peking Express, a European show in which couples are thrown the challenge to hike on a budget in foreign countries and overcome hurdles set for them.

Police sources said they had not found any espionage angle to the case yet. The lawyer representing the arrested organisers of the show — Benoit Marie Theresez Boakman of Belgium, Wadhen Kerstian from Germany, and Dan Mitson, who is British — said in court that they had made a “mistake” by not taking permission of Indian authorities.

The Dutch reality show has several versions across Europe. Among the 51 foreigners in Chulsa, 85km from Siliguri, were 33 participants from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Italy and England. There were 33 Indians working as translators and tour guides.

The organisers said the contestants were given the satellite phones so that could be tracked as they may venture into terrain where cellphone networks are feeble or non-existent.

Everester Basanta Singha Roy, when asked about the importance of satellite phones in unknown terrain, said “it is an essential tool”, but added that mountaineers are required to take permission from the department of telecom before using the phones.

“A foreigner has to give a declaration to immigration officials at the airport confirming if he or she is carrying a satellite phone,” said Jawed Shamim, the inspector-general of police, north Bengal. “The accused suppressed the fact to immigration officials that they were carrying the gadgets….” Foreigner have to get permission from the ministry of external affairs. “The users failed to produce such a permit,” Shamim said.

The trio were remanded in two days’ police custody and charged under Section 20 of the Indian Telegraph Act. According to the section, anyone working in India in contravention of the act may be jailed for up to three years and be fined a maximum of Rs 1,000 or only be fined. They have also been charged with criminal conspiracy and giving false information under the IPC.

The team was supposed to leave Chulsa for Kalimpong today but the police told them to stay put till further orders.

A police source said they came to know that the phones had travelled through the Manas wildlife sanctuary in Assam and Myanmar. Initially, the police suspected the KLO. Surveillance was intensified because Mamata Banerjee is scheduled to visit Jalpaiguri on February 12.

Jalpaiguri police chief Kunal Aggarwal said: “Yesterday afternoon, the army gave us specific information that the signals were emanating from Chulsa…. We conducted a room-to-room search at the resort and found 22 satellite phones.”

A home ministry source said satellite phones are allowed to be used only after permission from the department of telecom. Foreigners have to route their request through the external affairs ministry. Militants, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, were found using Thuraya satellite phones.

However, over the years the problem has become less worrisome as militants have moved to more sophisticated methods of communication. “These days people are not even arrested, we just seize the handsets,” the source said.

Additional public prosecutor Shanta Chatterjee said the trio “apologised for the mistake” in court. “They said the phones were used by the participants to pinpoint their locations.”

The trio, while being questioned, were told if any other team member had a handset, he should turn it in. Late at night, Saifi Billani, a French national staying in a hotel in Calcutta, went to New Market police station and deposited a satellite phone after police in Calcutta contacted him. He is a part of the TV show team.

This is not the first time foreigners ignorant of Indian regulations have been arrested. Darjeeling police had arrested Czech duo Petr Svacha, an entomologist, and Emil Kucera, a forester, on June 22, 2008, for collecting beetles in Singalila National Park without permission. Svacha was let off with a fine of Rs 20,000, and described as a “victim of circumstances”, by the chief judicial magistrate. Kucera disappeared in October 2008 when he was out on bail.