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Friday, 11 January, 2002, 08:55 GMT
Stillman's thwarted fight for freedom
Ian Stillman
Ian Stillman has spent 30 years in India
After 18 months of incarceration in India, deaf and disabled British charity worker Ian Stillman has lost his appeal against a drug smuggling conviction. But his campaign drew support from far and wide.

Ian Stillman's credentials make him an unlikely drug smuggler. Before his arrest 18 months ago, he had devoted the previous 30 years of his life to charity work in his adopted India.

With his Indian wife Sue, Stillman set up the Nambikkai Foundation - a charity dedicated to providing education, training and employment for deaf people in India.

Sue Stillman
Stillman's wife, Sue, lives 1,000 miles from where her husband has been imprisoned
The charity has helped place more than 1,000 deaf people into work and its influence has spread to other parts of India. But what makes those achievements all the more impressive is the fact that Stillman has been profoundly deaf since the age of two.

And following a motorcycle accident in 1995, he also relies on an artificial leg to help him walk.

Friends say he never let disability get in the way of his charitable duties. But his tireless work came to an abrupt end two years ago when he was arrested while travelling in Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, in an area called the Kullu Valley.

Drugs charge

The district, at the northern tip of India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, is notorious for cannabis smuggling and authorities have begun to crackdown on trafficking, particularly among western backpackers

Press reports that [Ian Stillman]is a wanted criminal in the UK are entirely erroneous

Statement from British High Commission
While travelling in a taxi late at night, Stillman was stopped at a police roadblock and arrested. Later, at the police station, he says he was shown a bag which is alleged to have contained 20 kilos of cannabis and told this had been found in his car.

Stillman has always claimed he was visiting the area to investigate new opportunities for his charitable work. But he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug smuggling, and has now lost an appeal against that conviction.

The nature of the trial outraged human rights campaigners. Although Stillman can lip-read English and understand sign language, proceedings were conducted in Hindi and his supporters say he was refused access to a translator.

Widespread support

Campaigners also say the whole of Stillman's defence was restricted to 20 minutes.

Ian Stillman's defence team
Ian Stillman's defence team: Pawan Mutneja and Deepak Gupta
Family and friends were shocked by the guilty verdict, and although he was soon granted an appeal, his plight has galvanised support among many in India's deaf community.

Deaf campaigners have staged demonstrations and, in August they sent 17,000 handwritten postcards to prominent politicians in an effort to raise the profile of Stillman's case.

Late last year his supporters were among protesters on a National Disability Day march in the capital Delhi, where they carried a 40ft banner proclaiming "Free Ian Stillman Now!"

Underhand business

There have also been allegations of a dirty tricks campaign after claims by the Kullu police that Interpol had Stillman marked as a known criminal who had links with an international drugs mafia and had committed a "very serious offence" in London.

Ian Stillman in prison
Ian Stillman: In stoical mood in Kanda jail
Interpol has rejected the claims and, in July, the British High Commission issued a statement confirming Stillman "was not wanted by the police in the UK".

"Recent press reports that he is a wanted criminal in the UK are entirely erroneous," said the statement.

In addition to the campaigning by deaf activists, his family has also been fighting hard for his release and, in the meantime, better prison conditions.

For Sue Stillman, the ordeal has been very difficult. Based in Chennai (formerly Madras) she is about 1,000 miles from her husband, who is in prison in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh.

Better prison conditions

Her visits have been few, since she now has sole charge of the foundation and another charity project, Deafchild India.

The couple's son Lennie, who is 22, has given up his work in London to be near his father. But visiting arrangements are awkward, and he is usually only allowed a short visit to the prison once a week.

Stillman's brother-in-law, Brendan Bowles, says the family has pressed hard for better conditions and there have been improvements. He is now housed in a "model prison" and has been granted a wheelchair to get around.

Although Stillman's appeal was concluded in the middle of October last year, he had to wait several weeks for the verdict. In a fax sent shortly before Christmas, he thanked supporters for their encouragement and said he had received dozens of letters and postcards.

"I am grateful to be allowed to read, write, study and pursue literary interests," he said of the prison regime.

And he signed off with characteristic stoicism: "I do not keep thinking when I will be released. That day is in God's hands."

See also:

04 Sep 00 | South Asia
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