| Peter Bleach
Calcutta, June 18: First light of hope entered Peter Bleach’s cell in Calcutta’s Alipore central jail through the pages of today’s newspapers.
But after seven years behind bars, Bleach — the Briton accused in the Purulia armsdrop case of 1995 — would only react with “cautious optimism”.
“Obviously I welcome this news, and feel cautiously optimistic,” he told legal activist and adviser Deepak Prahladka, after hearing of deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani’s commitment to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to reopen the matter.
The British government has been asking New Delhi to release Bleach after five Latvians, arrested with him in the case, were granted presidential pardon three years ago.
“This is the first time I’ve heard a positive response from Mr Advani. I think he’s an honourable man and will do the needful to secure my release as soon as possible,” Bleach said.
“But after several false alarms during my time in jail, I’m not yet counting the days until freedom.”
Bleach is being so cautious because he has not heard anything officially yet, that word would possibly come from the British high commission and it’s too early for it to happen yet because the Indian government has to first complete the legal process.
In the case of the Latvians, the process had taken about four months. If he’s lucky, Bleach should be able to spend Christmas at home.
Speaking from her North Yorkshire home, his elderly mother Oceana Bleach said she was “keeping her fingers crossed”.
“I haven’t heard anything apart from what I’ve been told by reporters this morning. I’m just hoping and praying it’s true.”
Bleach’s former girlfriend Jo Fletcher told The Telegraph: “I’m not going to start leaping in the air until I know he’s on a plane home, but this news cheers my heart. This is the first time in many years that anyone has actually taken any action on the case.”
Acting British Deputy High Commissioner Paul Walsh said he welcomed the developments, but reiterated that nothing concrete could be confirmed before Advani’s return tomorrow.
“Nothing this dramatic has happened in Mr Bleach’s appeal before, so I just hope he isn’t let down again.”
The deputy Prime Minister has pledged to raise the matter with law minister Arun Jaitey in a bid to unravel the legal hurdles and “find a way out”.
The Prime Minister is then expected to get the decision ratified in Parliament, allowing President Abdul Kalam to confer clemency on the prisoner.
On January 1st 1996, the doors of Bleach’s squalid cell in Presidency jail (he moved to Alipore recently) slammed fast behind him. Seven years and five months later, The Telegraph re-examines the files.
The accused: Peter Bleach and the Latvians
A former British army intelligence officer and later director of weapons company Aeroserve Ltd, Bleach, from North Yorkshire, was arrested with five Latvian nationals in December 1995 at Bombay airport after a $200,000 arms deal to drop 4.5 tonnes of Ak47 assault rifles and explosives in Purulia.
The suspected mastermind of the operation, Danish gunrunner Kim Davy, evaded authorities at the scene of arrest, vanishing in suspicious circumstances amid rumours of CIA intervention. ‘Kim Davy’, long since identified as Danish bank robber Niels Christian Nielson, remains at large in Denmark.
The conviction: Life sentence
Bleach, who defended himself in court, has consistently protested his innocence, claiming that he initially believed the arms were destined for the Indian government. He insists that, after discovering the deal was illegal, he briefed British military contacts before the armsdrop operation. British intelligence subsequently informed Indian authorities, according to Bleach.
Along with the five Latvians, Bleach was finally sentenced to life imprisonment in a Calcutta court in February 2000. But the Latvians were released in July 2000, and their sentences remitted by the President of India following the direct intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bleach alone remains behind bars, prompting accusations of double standards on the part of Indian authorities.
The case: Where Bleach stands in court
Bleach’s appeal still pending, with the CBI attempting to justify his continued incarceration by singling him out as the ‘mastermind behind the operation’, and the Latvians mere ‘pawns’.
Bleach points to breaches in Article 14 of the Constitution, which ensures equality before the law to those served identical sentences for committing identical offences.
The stalemate: British pleas and Indian silence
British officials at the highest level have continued to press for the prisoner’s release, with foreign secretaries Robin Cook and Jack Straw making representatives to the Indian government. In Aug 2002, Advani refused a request from Straw to intervene in the case. In recent months British leader Tony Blair has written two successive letters to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which Vajpayee finally answered in recent weeks with a flat rejection of Britain’srequests, giving no clue as to Advani’s dramatic turnaround on Monday.
Conspiracy theory: The unanswered question
•Who plotted the arms drop – was any government agency involved'
•Who were the arms destined for – the Anandamarg group, rebels in Bihar, theMyanmarese, the Bangladeshis'
•Who is Peter Bleach – A British secret agent, a rogue arms dealer, or a fall guy'
•Why is Bleach still in prison' Does no one – the CBI, the Indian government, the plotters themselves – want to see him walk free'