Plea for release of UK arms smuggler from Indian jail

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The Independent Online

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is to make a personal appeal to the Indian government for the release of a British arms smuggler Peter Bleach - sentenced to life imprisonment in India - after his five Russian accomplices were freed.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is to make a personal appeal to the Indian government for the release of a British arms smuggler Peter Bleach - sentenced to life imprisonment in India - after his five Russian accomplices were freed.

The Russian crew of the aircraft that dropped a huge consignment of arms allegedly to rebels in a remote spot near Purulia, west Bengal, in December 1995, were freed on the orders of the Indian President after intense pressure by their government. All had been jailed for life along with Bleach, 48, by a Calcutta court in February and were awaiting their appeal. Bleach is the only one of the conspirators still in jail.

However, a Foreign Office spokesman said that Mr Straw would only ask for a speedy hearing of Bleach's case, rather than a pardon, when he visits India in the next few months.

Last night, the Indian lawyer for the Russians, Srenik Singhvi, said Bleach's treatment represented a case of "double standards" as all the men had been convicted in the same case.

The aircrew, four of whom were Latvian and one Russian until they changed their nationality after conviction in order to secured Moscow's diplomatic clout, were released on Saturday morning, reportedly after months of pressure by the Russian government and the intervention of President Vladimir Putin as a result of growing public concern sparked by word of the grim jail conditions in Calcutta.

The Briton's lawyer, R K Khanna, said yesterday that it was only after meeting his client on Saturday that details of the conditions of the releases became clear. It appeared that there had been a prisoner swap, rather than an outright pardon.

Mr Khanna believed the clemency accorded by the President would improve Bleach's position. However, the conviction of the Russians still stands, while Bleach is pressing his appeal on the grounds that he wanted his conviction quashed. He maintained during the two-year trial that he had tipped off British Special Branch about the arms drop so the Indian authorities could be informed andcatch the conspirators red-handed.

A spokesman for the British High Commission in Delhi denied reports that Mr Straw intended to make the case for a pardon, merely that Bleach's appeal should be considered as soon as possible.

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