Woman's seven year jail ordeal

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INDIA'S Court of Appeal has acquitted a young Englishwoman who has spent seven years in a New Delhi jail because of information supplied by British Customs and Excise officers, writes Nick Cohen.

Yesterday, Helen Cooper, 32, from south London, was enjoying her first taste of freedom since she was arrested with her boyfriend in 1987. The appeal court quashed a 10-year sentence for smuggling after doubts were raised about the evidence of Indian narcotics officers who claimed to have found cannabis in one of her suitcases. She had always maintained her innocence.

Indian drugs officers acting on a tip-off from officers at the High Commission in New Delhi arrested Helen and her boyfriend as they changed flights en route from Nepal to the Netherlands. One of their suitcases allegedly contained 2.4kg (about 6lbs) of cannabis resin. Conviction automatically meant a 10-year sentence.

'What the customs did stank,' said Colin Cooper, Helen's brother. 'British citizens are arrested all over the world because of custom officers' actions.'

Ms Cooper and her boyfriend, Michael Kingsbury, a 48-year-old ex-paratrooper, almost certainly attracted customs' notice because they had a record of involvement with drugs. Kingsbury had served a jail sentence in France for drug- smuggling in the mid-eighties. Helen was arrested near Boulogne when she attempted to raise money for his defence by collecting cannabis to sell.

The family suspect that customs officers in New Delhi saw Kingsbury's name on passenger lists and alerted Indian drug officers. However, although the Cooper family blame Kingsbury for getting Helen involved in drugs, the Indian Court of Appeal decided that he too was innocent.

The couple's case took three-and-a-half years to get through the courts. Helen appealed immediately after sentence, but lawyers' strikes, changes of judges and the endemic delays in the Indian legal system prevented the appeal coming before a court. It was heard only after high-level representations from the Foreign Office, which included raising the case with Narasimha Rao, the Indian prime minister.

Her brothers argue that even if Helen was guilty, Customs and Excise should have waited for the couple to land in the Netherlands or return to Britain before organising an arrest. Penalties would have been more lenient.