Hanged tourist feared for life, message to parents shows

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The parents of a British tourist found hanged in India have played a recording of a desperate message he left on their answering machine days before he was killed. The death of Stephen Bennett, a father of two girls, remains shrouded in mystery.

The 40-year-old from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, was found hanging from a mango tree by a piece of sari cloth. Indian police say he was lynched by a group of villagers after they mistakenly thought he had tried to rape a local woman. They have arrested four men for murder.

But Mr Bennett's parents have challenged the police's version of events, and say they believe he was abducted. They say he rang them repeatedly from Goa, where he was on holiday, to say he was being threatened by two men there and feared for his life.

"I am being intimidated here. I've done absolutely nothing wrong but I'm being intimidated and I'm scared," Mr Bennett says in the answering machine recording, played on television. "Hopefully I'll be able to speak to you tomorrow. If not, I love you loads. Give my love to the kids. C'est la vie. Bye."

Mr Bennett's mother, Maureen, said: "I don't want to see four men go to the gallows for something they didn't do, but I want the truth."

Police officials in Goa have said Mr Bennett was "a small-scale drug dealer and addict", a claim strongly denied by his family.

At the heart of the mystery is the fact that the body was found not in Goa, where he was on holiday, but in a remote village hundreds of miles north. Indian police say he walked there after getting off the train from Goa to Bombay. But his parents say there is no reason he would have walked to such a place. The train stops four miles away, and the village of Malsai, where he was found, is on the way to nowhere.

Also central is the testimony of Nirmala Mene, a local woman. According to the Indian police, Mr Bennett stumbled into the village after dark and approached Ms Mene. Her husband thought the foreigner was trying to sexually assault his wife, and he and a group of villagers beat Mr Bennett, then killed him in their rage.

The husband, Ramesh, has allegedly confessed and described Mr Bennett's death, saying: "We were so angry that he had tried to outrage the modesty of my wife that we strangled him." But Ms Mene has since told the BBC that she had never met Mr Bennett, and that police had bullied her into putting her thumbprint ­ she is illiterate ­ to her supposed statement. Police say she is trying to save her husband. But Mr Bennett's parents see it as more evidence supporting their version of events: that their son was somehow abducted from Goa and taken to the village.

His mother said he had called her on 7 December in a state of panic. " He said, 'I've been travelling with these two blokes and these people are menacing.' He was afraid they might try to kill him." The day before, Mr Bennett had called to say he had fled his hotel and left his money and passport behind after an "incident" on the beach. "Something happened to him on the beach to really scare him," his mother said.

"Two men were frightening him to death," she told The Gloucestershire Echo. "You don't ring your mother and say you're going to be murdered. He said these two men were too nice and kept talking to him in English but they talked to each other ­ and seemed to be planning something."

It is hard to see what could have frightened Mr Bennett so much in Goa, where the beaches are crowded in December and help is always at hand. His parents are planning to travel to the village where he was found in an effort to find the truth.