February 20, 2020
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Long Way To Latvia

The accused languish, with varying claims about their complicity

Long Way To Latvia

LIFE has not followed a Forsyth script for the five Latvian soldiers of fortune arrested in connection with the Purulia arms dropping case in December 1995. For two years now, they have been incarcerated in Calcutta's Presidency jail—isolated from others, with too meagre a knowledge of English to effect even the most basic communication. Not surprising then that two of them—Igor Moskivitine and Yevgeni Antimenko—are critically ill. And for the rest, the rigours of yet another harsh Calcutta summer lie ahead.

During the time they have been in jail, the Latvians have been on no one's conscience. There has been no consular or diplomatic interest in their plight, Latvia having no presence in this part of the world. To add to their woes, the five are ethnic Russians whom native Latvians do not exactly adore. To their relief, the British high commission and Englishman Peter J. Bleach, who was arrested along with the Latvians, have moved the local authorities on their behalf. Says British vice-consul Bernie Andrews: "I visited them in jail once recently and found them in a highly emaciated condition."

Bleach—who shares their plight, but is better looked after since he has access to diplomatic help and has UK-based lawyer Chris Hudson to fight his case—adds: "Igor suffers from TB and has high temperature frequently." His "treatment" was discontinued on the basis of an X-ray taken on April 6, and the doctor said his condition had improved. But the high commission doctor who examined him disagreed, saying his condition had deteriorated between March 5 and April 6, with TB attacking both lungs.

Antimenko's condition is worse. He has a blood circulation affliction that creates cardio-vascular problems and has suffered seven seizures while in prison. Advocate Milan Mukherjee, who appears for the Latvians, tried in vain to move a bail petition for them recently.

But help was finally at hand, with the arrival of Raimonds Jansons, chief of the legal department, Latvian Foreign Ministry. The visit was the outcome of intense diplomatic pressure exerted by the Russians. In fact Moscow charged Riga with neglecting its own citizens, never mind their ethnicity. After meeting with the detainees, Jansons said: "These five men were not really involved in any gun-running or smuggling racket. They had been recruited as freighters and believed that they were on a routine mission. When they questioned the arms dropping mastermind Kim Davy about certain cargo loaded at Karachi on their way to Calcutta, he threatened them with a gun and asked them to shut up or else." Davy, who seemed to have the run of Mumbai and Varanasi airports prior to the arms dropping, remains at large.

While he had offered Bleach over £30,000 for the delivery of the arms, he had recruited the Latvians at only around $5 a day, with around $1,000 as bonus. The five were just then at a loose end, with the virtual collapse of their Latvian airways and they provided the AN 26 plane that was used. "The conspiracy itself was planned at Copenhagen where the Latvians were not present," claims Mukherjee.

The arms, including AK-47s, rocket-launchers and grenades, were procured from Bulgaria. Some observers say the consignment was really intended for the Kachin rebels in Myanmar fighting the Burmese army. It is further argued that the consignment was dropped over Purulia district on the night of December 17/18 in 1995 by mistake.

 "Our stand is clear," Jansons declares. "We do not wish to interfere with the process of justice or go against any law of the land. But let them be treated properly and until they are proved guilty, they can be presumed to be innocent. In case they get bail, the Latvian government will stand guarantee for them."

 The CBI, however, opposes the bail plea, and the chargesheet accuses 13 people, including Davy, Bleach and the Latvians, of attempting to "wage war against the state" and to procure funds and arms to achieve this. Says an official: "It is yet to be established just how much the Latvians knew and whether they were really innocent. In any case, they can always throw valuable light on what Davy had told them, his plans and movements. They must be available on a where-and when-we-want-them basis, as inquiries do take time on a massive arms dropping case like this." And given the slow, winding nature of most court proceedings, the Latvians are likely to remain in India for quite a while to answer some thorny questions.

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