Briton before judge in spy case

The travails of Peter Bleach continue in Calcutta. The Yorkshire gunrunner, who says he was working undercover for British intelligence when he arranged a night parachute drop of weapons over rural West Bengal state in December 1995, finally went before a judge yesterday. Mr Bleach, 44, told the court he will plead his own case when his trial for treason gets under way on 20 February, some two months behind schedule. He faces the death penalty if found guilty.

Mr Bleach has declined an Indian advocate. He complained to the court about reports in the Indian press that he had been charged in Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and would risk legal action if he returned home. "This is definitely prejudicial to a fair trial," he said. David Belgrove, a British consular officer in Calcutta, confirmed that the reports were "bogus". "There are no British charges," he said.

"Unfortunately, everybody seems to want to believe that I am guilty," Mr Bleach said. "The main charge they have against me is 'conspiracy to wage war'. How can I possibly be guilty of conspiracy when the first thing I did was call the police?"

He maintains that as soon as he suspected the arms he dropped over West Bengal might be intended for insurgents, he informed the British Ministry of Defence and local authorities. He claims that after the agencies failed to seize the weapons despite his intelligence, he became a public embarrassment and a scapegoat.

"The bulk of the blame lies with British Special Branch. They sat on my information from September till December, then just told me to pull out," Mr Bleach said. "I told them I thought the guns were to be used to kill politicians and party workers of the government."

Mr Bleach has been in Presidency jail for 14 months, with six others arrested in connection with the case, including the Latvian crew who piloted the cargo aircraft that dropped the arms.

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