A British spy turned arms dealer who nearly died in an Indian prison told a Copenhagen court yesterday how he was beaten and humiliated while serving a life sentence there.
Giving evidence in the extradition hearing of the Danish "terrorist" who was once his customer, Peter Bleach said he feared the Dane would not survive if forced to stand trial in Kolkata.
India wants Niels Holck, Bleach's former customer, to be tried on terrorism charges dating back to 1995. The Danish government has agreed to the extradition – the first ever to a third world country – but a local Danish court upheld Holck's appeal. Now a five-man bench of the high court is hearing the government's appeal against that decision.
In 1995 Mr Bleach, now 60, went to Copenhagen to meet Niels Holck to clinch a deal to sell him a large consignment of weapons. But his view of the deal changed when he learned that the Dane wanted the weapons delivered to a remote spot in the central Indian countryside. Returning to Britain, Bleach alerted MI5, who told him to go ahead.
He procured an ancient Antonov plane to carry the consignment of Kalashnikovs and other weapons plus ammunition. His intention was to conclude the deal and return home, but Holck refused to let him go, fearing he would betray him.
In late December 1995, the decrepit Russian plane full of munitions sat for days on the tarmac at Karachi airport, then flew across one of the world's tensest borders into India and landed at the central Indian city of Varanasi.
There the arms were loaded onto pallets which were attached to parachutes. Once the airport's radar had been conveniently turned off it set off on the last leg of the journey. But for pilot error – the drop was made from 300 metres instead of 300 feet – the delivery would probably have gone off without a hitch, and Bleach and Holck would have returned home safe and sound.
The intended destination was Ananda Marg, a utopian community founded in Bihar in 1955. It calls itself an organisation of sannyasin – monks and nuns – who dedicate their lives to meditation and social service, and it has branches around the world. Holck claims to have done social service for the organisation for years. But unlike other such organisations, the monks are prepared to take up arms.
Both Bleach and Holck were in the plane when the arms were dropped – but when the Indian authorities caught up with them at Bombay's airport days later and Bleach and the airplane's crew were arrested, Holck was spirited out of the country.
Bleach and the rest were eventually convicted in Kolkata of waging war against India and sentenced to life. Now the Indian authorities want the man described as the mastermind of the crime to stand trial.
But yesterday Bleach, who contracted TB in Kolkata's squalid jail before being pardoned under pressure from Britain, told the Copenhagen court that he doubted Holck would survive. "The way the Indian press is talking about him is equivalent to the way the US press talked about Osama bin Laden," he said.
Holck has said the arms were to enable Ananda Marg to protect itself against thugs sent by West Bengal's communist government, with which there was a long-running feud. But last month he told Times Now, an Indian news site, that the true object "was to destabilise the government of West Bengal" so it could be "ruled…directly from Delhi." Confirming Peter Bleach's claims, he said both British and Indian secret services knew about the arms drop long in advance.
In an interview with The Independent last year, Mr Bleach said "A lot of people close to the summit of Indian government and intelligence would have to have signed off on the arms drop plan for it to go ahead…If Holck is extradited to India, he won't last a week. They would probably kill him in jail."