An amateur's guide to the arms trade

Peter Bleach was a Walter Mitty who fell into a deadly business, report John Gilbert and Jan McGirk
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The Independent Online
Just how difficult is it for a 45-year-old ex-public schoolboy from Yorkshire with no special qualifications to end up one night in a Russian plane with a Latvian crew making a parachute drop of illicit weapons to a militant Hindu sect in an Indian province?

A formal answer to this question may well be given by the trial of Peter Bleach, a date for which is likely to be set by a Calcutta magistrate later this week. An investigation by the Independent on Sunday, however, into the background of the man who has been held for a year in Calcutta's Presidency Jail on a charge which carries the death penalty, suggests the answer: not difficult at all.

The break-up of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and its armies have made it easier than ever for a businessman in Britain to become an international arms dealer.

This is a question the Government is greatly concerned with, after last month's revelation that the 1994 slaughter of a million Tutsis by the Rwandan army was facilitated by a pounds 3m weapons deal organised by a company based in Britain. Ministers have ordered a full investigation.

They will no doubt take a vivid interest in the trial of Mr Bleach, who has given Indian police a full account of his role in the midnight air- drop of weapons to the Ananda Marg sect last December, which ended in the arrest of him and the crew when they were forced down at Bombay airport.

His case illustrates how a "nearly man" - in the army, in the former Rhodesia, as a private detective - can move centre stage when he comes into contact with the arms trade.

Mr Bleach is the product of St Peter's School in York, a minor public school which numbers Guy Fawkes among its former pupils. He left it in 1970 to join the army, but not, as some press reports have suggested, for a long career as an army intelligence officer. He was discharged from the Intelligence Corps as a lance-corporal after only three years.

After the army, Mr Bleach took off for Rhodesia. Later accounts of him suggested he had been in the Rhodesian special forces. The truth, once again, is more mundane: he joined the Rhodesian prison service.

Mr Bleach eventually returned to England and Southend, where he set up as a private detective, hiring offices in the building which then housed the Southend on Sea Conservative Association, and becoming a friend of Southend's MP, Sir Teddy Taylor. He began to mix and work with other private investigators, some of them former Metropolitan police officers, and was eventually hired as a firearms "expert" by the News of the World in an expose of an Essex arms dealer.

After the investigation Mr Bleach made a point of cultivating the friendship of other News of the World journalists. He drank in the office pub and was introduced to a bona fide international arms dealer with offices in London and Switzerland.

Mr Bleach eventually went to work for the man, helping to sell Polish helicopters to Bangladesh.

After working in the office overlooking St Katherine's Dock in London as an "administrative assistant" he decided to strike out on his own, buying Howdale House on the fringe of the North York Moors, a bleak and isolated HQ for his newly conceived defence sales company. A friend who visited him at the time said: "From his isolated bunker he was going to run the world, be an international trader." The dream did not quite come true.

A detective who has visited the house since his arrest said: "From the documents we've recovered it's clear he did establish some business connections with the Indian subcontinent. But he was dealing in everything - cigarettes, prawns, even bouncy castles to Bengal."

Then in August last year came the opportunity he had been waiting for. According to Mr Bleach, he got a call from Denmark: could he quote for a shipment of AK47 rifles? He met representatives of the Ananda Marg in London, and travelled to Bulgaria to acquire not just the rifles, but rocket launchers, grenades and ammunition, a transport plane and its aircrew. But he ended up in a Calcutta jail.

So how did a man with no money, little expertise, no technical or commercial experience, get himself into the arms trade? Can it really be that easy?

The answer, with qualifications, seems to be Yes.

"Given the state of countries in the old Eastern bloc, it's about as easy as driving over the Channel to get a van-load of cheap booze," said Mr Bleach's old employer, now living in the West Country. "The only difference is that if you're caught with your Transit van full of booze it's a pounds 1,000 fine. If it's full of guns it's 10 years inside.

"You can now get an assault rifle for $90, a rocket launcher for $1,500. That part is easy. The difficult bit is bankrolling the whole affair. These people don't want cheques or credit cards. It's money in cash, preferably US dollars. Mr Bleach was a disaster waiting to happen. He had no money of his own; ergo someone, somewhere, had to be his banker.

"He wouldn't know how to arrange finance on a large scale. There is a very real sense in which he walked into this, and I believe he was set up. He was into a world he didn't really understand. His whole style shouted incompetence. Who knows who was really behind it? My money would be on the CIA, who have a considerable interest in India and always use hired help at two or three removes. The whole operation could have been an attempt to severely reduce the financial resources of the Ananda Marg. No more than that."

Sir Teddy Taylor has approached the MoD and Foreign Office for information and help on behalf of his former friend and constituent. "The MoD seemed to have washed their hands of him," said the MP. "The Foreign Office were quite helpful at first - but now they have gone cool.

"Most of the time life seems to have been something of a struggle for him. I do hope that if the death sentence is passed the Government will intervene on Peter's behalf."