Families of former British soldiers held in Indian jail call on government for help


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Indy Politics

The families of six former British soldiers imprisoned in India after being arrested during “anti-piracy operations” have demanded the UK government intervene to secure their safe return.

Some 35 crew members of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio - operated by AdvanFort, a private US firm specialising in maritime security, training and intelligence operations for shipping - have reportedly been held in Chennai since 18 October on suspicion of illegally carrying arms and ammunition.

The company has demanded the release of the crew, claiming that any weapons on board the vessel were used to safeguard commercial ships in the Indian Ocean.

Among the crew were six Britons, all reportedly former soldiers, whose family claim are being held “unlawfully”.

Yvonne Machugh, from Oban, in western Scotland, has petitioned the Foreign Secretary William Hague to intervene to secure the six's release, including her boyfriend and former Parachute Regiment member Billing Irving, 33.

She wrote: “These men are our brothers, sons and partners. They have risked their lives serving our country in the British Army, and now need the British Government's help to be released from an Indian Prison where they are being imprisoned unlawfully.”

She told the Daily Record: “I realise Indian law has to run its course so it's not their fault. It's the British Government who are not helping these men out.”

Ms Machugh claimed the crew members, including a 17-year-old “Estonian boy”, had been resting on board the vessel between transits from client ships when they had been arrested.

The Times of India has reported that the arrests were carried out by the Tamil Nadu Coastal Security Group. Those arrested included 10 crew members and 25 security guards.

Last month, a spokesman for the coastal security group said the vessel “didn't have documents of authorisation” to carry weapons.  Port officials in Cochin, a major port on the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, later said the vessel had berthed in Kochi in August with inspections at the time not uncovering any weapons.

According to local reports, a second case has been registered against the crew under the Essential Commodities Act, for allegedly buying 1,500 litres of diesel illegally with the “help of a local shipping agent”.

The Argyll MP, Allan Reid, said: “If the captain of the boat, or the owners, have committed any offence under Indian law it is not right to hold the men prisoner. They were merely passengers of the vessel.”

By tonight, more than 18,000 people had signed the petition demanding the crew's release.

A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said: “We can confirm the detention of six British nationals from the ship, MV Seaman Guard Ohio, on 18 October in India.

“We are providing consular assistance and are in touch with the local authorities.”