Indians release two Britons who aided Naga rebels

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The Independent Online
INDIAN authorities yesterday released two Britons who had joined a band of tribal rebels fighting in the north-eastern jungles of the country and who were captured after a shoot-out and a car chase.

David Ward, 31, and Stephen Hillman, 25, had been detained in Allahabad prison in Uttar Pradesh state for more than a year under the Indian National Security Act. Their release comes after prodding on the Indian government from human rights groups in Britain and several British politicians following John Major's talks last month in New Delhi with the Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao.

Authorities said that Mr Ward and Mr Hillman, former convicts in Britain, were riding in a convoy driven by Naga rebels which tried to shoot its way past an army roadblock on a remote jungle road. The soldiers returned fire, killing a Naga tribesman, and forced three cars to halt. The driver of a fourth car, instead of surrendering, reversed and sped away with Mr Ward inside, tending a dying Naga rebel. They were later caught on a bridge. Police found a machine-gun, three rifles, radios and video equipment inside the cars. Delhi lawyers said that Mr Hillman was badly beaten by the security forces.

Neither Mr Ward nor Mr Hillman appear to have been mercenaries. Instead, while in prison in Britain, they seem to have developed a quixotic obsession with helping the Naga insurgents, who are fighting the Indian security forces for a separate state in their remote, hilly jungle land. Mr Ward chanced upon the Nagas after browsing through a copy of Who's Who in the Parkhurst prison library and seeing an entry on an Indian writer living in Assam. Mr Ward had grown up in Assam, the son of tea-planters, and he began a correspondence with the Assamese man, who directed his attention to the suffering of the 1.2 million Naga tribesmen living near the Burmese border. The Nagas are Christian converts and many feel culturally estranged from New Delhi, which is 1,500 miles away.

A quiet and slight former public-school boy, Mr Ward gained a reputation inside prison for being violent and rebellious. After his expulsion from public schools, he became a gang leader in east London, leading to his conviction for robbery. More years were tacked on to his term after he tried to escape from prison in Canterbury by kidnapping four guards. After years of solitary confinement, he immersed himself in all he could find about the Nagas in the reference books in the prison libraries. Soon, at Gartree prison, Leicestershire, he had organised many other prisoners, Mr Hillman among them, into a Naga support group. He held Naga poetry readings and song- nights inside the prison sponsored by human rights groups.

Foreigners are banned from going to Nagaland, but Mr Ward and Mr Hillman slipped into the state and spent three months there before their capture in January 1992. Delhi lawyers for the two Britons claimed that they were investigating alleged human rights abuses of Naga tribesmen by the Indian security forces.

The romance of the Nagas, as seen through the colour plates of books and atlases back in the prison library, swiftly paled for the two Britons once they were inside an Indian jail cell. The injuries Mr Hillman received from the Indian police plagued him and, according to lawyers, he tried to distance himself from Mr Ward and his involvement with the Nagas, to hasten deportation. His repeated requests to be deported back home were denied by the courts. Mr Ward's support for the Nagas, however, remained unwavering.

Held without trial for a year, the men faced a maximum 14-year stretch for treason in an Indian jail which would have made Mr Ward's passage through the maximum- security institutions in Britain seem like a stay at the Savoy. It seems that the Indian Home Ministry withdrew the case after their plight was raised during Mr Major's tour of India last month. One British MP wrote to the Prime Minister alleging that Mr Ward and Mr Hillman were coerced by the Indian police into signing confessions.