Rough justice for prison heroine

India/ revenge
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The Independent Online
IT MIGHT have been because her superiors were jealous that she was invited to the White House for breakfast with the Clinton family. Or perhaps Kiran Bedi lost her job as chief warden of India's largest jail because she let one of her most dangerous and cunning inmates - Charles Sobhraj, nicknamed the "Hippie Killer" - use a typewriter to write her biography.

But the 46-year-old Ms Bedi, a short, peppy woman who is India's best known and most controversial police officer, was given a surprise transfer on Wednesday from her post as inspector-general of Tihar jail. When she took charge of Tihar two years ago, the prison's 8,000 convicts were notorious as among the most unruly in Asia, and its wardens the most corrupt.

"Why have I been transferred?" she asked, on learning she was being moved to a dead-end job as head of training at the police academy. "There are a lot of vested interests, within the jail and outside. There are people who are against the reforms. And they have finally won."

Even her adversaries - and there are many, for Ms Bedi unashamedly courts publicity - admit that Tihar is no longer the sink of depravity it was. Before she took over, gangs terrorised inmates and, with the connivance of corrupt guards, smuggled in liquor and drugs, and prostitutes from the women's wing. The backlog of paperwork was so bad that dozens of prisoners languished for decades in prison without being brought to trial.

Tihar's most notorious inmate, Sobhraj - who is wanted in Thailand for a number of self-confessed sadistic murders of Western backpackers - staged a brazen escape from the high-security wing with six other inmates by knocking out the guards with doped sweets. He was recaptured. (Not, perhaps, by accident; in Tihar he will avoid being sent to Thailand, where he would face the death penalty, until a 20-year statute of limitations on the Thai arrest warrant runs out in 1996.)

"I trembled when I first entered Tihar two years ago," Ms Bedi said. Instead of hiring more armed guards with guns, she had swamis teach meditation courses in which more than a thousand prisoners at a time would sit contemplating something other than brawling. She also weeded out corrupt wardens, shovelled through the mountain of paperwork, speeding up trial times, and allowed volunteers into Tihar to teach the inmates how to read.

Her downfall began when her superiors, among them New Delhi's Lieutenant- Governor, Prasanbhai Dave, grew envious of her glory. An invitation to join the Clintons for a talk on her prison reforms was refused by her bosses. When a second breakfast invite arrived earlier this year, public support for Ms Bedi was so great her superiors had to let her go to Washington.

Friends of Ms Bedi said that when Sobhraj let it slip that he was writing an admiring biography of her on an electric typewriter - banned in Indian prisons - her bosses at last had the excuse to banish the high-profile warden to an obscure job.