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December 9, 2002

Govt pardons deaf social worker Ian Stillman

From: Newindpress, India - 09 Dec 2002

SHIMLA: Ian Stillman, the deaf and disabled British social worker who was serving a 10-year jail term in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh for a drugs conviction, has received a Presidential pardon on compassionate grounds.

Stillman, who has been deaf since he was two and who lost a leg in an accident in 1995, was handed over to a British High Commission team on Saturday, Rakesh Sharma, DIG Prisons, told this website's newspaper. "They said they were taking him to Delhi," Sharma added.

There were unconfirmed reports that under the clemency deal, Stillman will have to leave the country and return to the United Kingdom. The 51-year-old social worker, who has lived in India since 1972, runs the Nambikkai Foundation in Tirunelvelli in Tamil Nadu along with his Indian wife Yesumani.

Stillman was arrested on August 28, 2000 near Manali. Police said they found a bag in the tax housing containing 20 kg of cannabis resin, but Stillman pleaded innocence, saying the bag containing the contraband didn't belong to him. He was convicted by a sessions judge in Kullu and his appeal in the Himachal Pradesh High Court was rejected.

Stillman's family and NGOs based in Britain took up his cause, appealing to the Supreme Court and finally, to the President through the UK Government, stated sources. British Prime Minister Tony Blair even reportedly wrote to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in November, asking him to free Stillman on compassionate grounds.

"We are grateful to the Indian government for agreeing to his early release on health grounds," a Foreign Office spokesman in London said on Saturday.

The UK-based pressure group Fair Trials Abroad claimed that Stillman had been denied an interpreter during his original trial because the court would not recognise the extent of his deafness and he was not given the chance to speak on his own behalf. Supporters also claim that he suffered "harsh" jail conditions.

"While awaiting trial Ian was held in Kullu jail for nine months from August 2000 to May 2001. Conditions were extremely cramped and basic. His bed was the concrete floor. At night he could not easily reach the toilet," the Free Ian Stillman campaign web site said. "Although he shared a cell with 25-35 others, he was isolated by his deafness and lack of Hindi. For him it was almost like solitary confinement."

The Kandha jail staff, however, claimed that Stillman had been a "self-contained" prisoner who "rarely mixed with fellow prisoners". Stillman is said to know no other language than English, which he learned as a child by the throat vibration method, and he communicates through sign language in English and Tamil.

© Newindpress