Arms dealer freed by Indian pardon

A British arms dealer, Peter Bleach, was freed from jail in Calcutta yesterday after serving eight years of a life sentence for smuggling weapons into West Bengal.

The former lance-corporal in the Army intelligence corps thanked India's President, Abdul Kalam, who had pardoned him. Mr Bleach, 52, from Fylingthorpe, North Yorkshire, who said he acted with the knowledge of the British government, said that he felt "vindicated" by his pardon.

In a statement released through the Foreign Office, he said: "My ordeal is finally over and this is a very emotional moment for me. The years have not been easy and I am now eagerly looking forward to returning to the UK and seeing my elderly mother and my friend Jo Fletcher who have been praying for me."

Mr Bleach was sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2000, along with five Russians and Latvians, after being convicted of air-dropping arms, including AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal in December 1995.

A Calcutta court found him guilty of conspiracy to commit offences against the state. The Russians and Latvians were released in July 2000. Bleach remained in jail despite repeated pleas from the British government that he should be set free.

During his trial, Mr Bleach said that he told the Ministry of Defence abouthis activities, and kept in "constant touch" with MI5. The British government said he had been warned not to go to India to make the deal. In July last year, Mr Bleach was refused a pardon for a second time. After a meeting between the Indian Deputy Prime Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, in New Delhi last week, the Indian President remitted the remaining part of Mr Bleach's sentence.

"Nothing can replace the years that I have lost. It has been a long struggle since 1995 and I feel vindicated that the government of India has finally taken the decision to free me," said Mr Bleach. He suffered "acute tuberculosis" while in prison - half of which was spent in solitary confinement.

Mr Bleach is expected to arrive in Britain tomorrow, according to his friend and long-time supporter Sir Teddy Taylor, Tory MP for Rochford and Southend East. "If he was simply a smuggler, I would have no time for him but a great injustice was done to him," said Mr Taylor. Mr Bleach's mother, Oceana, 83, who lives near Scarboroughand his friend, Jo Fletcher,have repeatedly called for his release.