An influential section of the Indian legal community is sharply critical of the presidential pardon granted to the five Russian pilots sentenced to life for their role in the arms drop over Purulia. Many experts are even questioning the pardon on the grounds that it sends wrong signals to both the judiciary as well as security agencies.
The five - Latvians of Russian origin who later took Russian citizenship - and a British national, Peter Bleach, were arrested in December 1995 after iaf fighters forced down the Antonov 26 transport plane they were travelling in. A seventh passenger, Niels Christian Nielsen, better known by his alibi Kim Davy, vanished mysteriously from the airport in Bombay. In February this year, after four long years of depositions by CBI witnesses, the Calcutta High Court found the first six guilty of "crimes against the state" and sentenced them to life imprisonment. But on July 22, President K.R. Narayanan used his discretionary powers under Article 72 of the Constitution to remit the sentences and free the five Russian pilots. An mea press release said the pardon came after "taking into consideration the strength of our relations with Russia and the humanitarian dimensions of the problem."
"This is unprecendented. As far as I know, such a thing has never happened before," says a senior lawyer. "Obviously there's some deal with the Russians. But one can't compromise on internal security except in exceptional circumstances. For instance, if Russia had threatened us with a nuclear attack, perhaps such a pardon may then have been considered," is the wry response of Prashant Bhushan, a public interest Supreme Court lawyer. "But this is a matter involving our national laws and unless we've been blackmailed, the pardon shouldn't have been given," he says. Earlier, in response to appeals from the Duma (parliament), the Russian Orthodox Church and the pilot's families, Delhi had maintained that the issue was before the courts and that the law would have to take its course.
But all that changed after Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened. Media reports that Putin had threatened to cancel his proposed India visit in October unless the pilots were freed were later hotly denied by the Russian embassy. There were also reports lamenting the "inhuman conditions" under which the pilots were kept in custody. The issue was raised during defence minister George Fernandes' visit to Russia. And then, during his visit to Moscow last month, foreign minister Jaswant Singh was moved to assure his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, that he'd spare no effort to seek the pilots' release.
"On what humanitarian grounds have they been released?" asks Supreme Court lawyer Aman Lekhi. "Even if the release came due to political considerations, the pardon has to be beneficial to the country. This is an assault on our sovereignty and integrity." The dismay is echoed in security circles. "We've tried the fellows and handed out sentences. What kind of message are we sending to our men? Have we even got a formal request for their release? Doesn't national self-esteem count?" laments a senior security official. "First we release Azhar Masood with Jaswant Singh providing escort services. What we have here is another hostage situation...at least then we got a plane-load of passengers back, what have we got here?" he asks.
Legal experts in Calcutta say the normal procedure would have been to ensure that the prisoners first appealed for clemency, which would have been referred to the judicial authorities and the President, who could then have initiated proceedings for their pardon and subsequent release. This important formality was not observed.
However, the pilots did steadfastly protest their innocence. Even under sustained cross-examination, they maintained that they did not know the contents of their cargo and were just "poor Latvian pilots" hired to do a job. They also said that they were kept in bad conditions in local jails and initially weren't provided proper food or even fans during the torrid Indian summer. They were also reportedly attacked by fellow inmates. The five then resorted to a hunger strike, following which some Europe-based civil rights groups intervened with the local authorities. Raimond Jansons, a Latvian official, also visited Calcutta to plead on their behalf but to no avail. Peter Bleach, one of the prime accused, also helped them fight for better conditions - which they got after two years of struggle. The dapper Englishman, who was regularly visited by British officials, was apparently given better treatment.
It's also said that the trial could've been hastened but for the cbi's deliberate efforts to delay proceedings. According to prominent lawyer Deepak Prahladka, who entered the fray on behalf of the prisoners, the CBI failed to put up a convincing case. The case dragged on for months as the CBI put up over 200 witnesses, many of whom contradicted their own statements. "The case has international ramifications. The fact that Kim Davy escaped in Bombay indicates it was a planned affair. These pilots weren't part of the group. There's nothing wrong with the President's decision," asserts Rajya Sabha member and Supreme Court lawyer R.K Anand. He also points out that though they were convicted of "crimes against the state", evidence gathered later indicates the arms were actually meant for Sri Lanka.
Immediately after the pardon, R.K. Khanna, counsel for Peter Bleach, told a website that he was hopeful of his client's release. "Peter Bleach now stands on a different footing, primarily because the case against the co-accused doesn't exist anymore in this country." But then, there might be no need for a case. For, if a pardon has once been handed out, what's to prevent one for the other accused as well?