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December 7, 2002

'I quit London to fight for my dad in India'

From: BBC, UK - 07 Dec 2002

Deaf amputee Ian Stillman has been released on health grounds two years into his 10-year sentence for drug smuggling. Earlier this year, his son told BBC News Online about his family's long campaign for justice.

"I came out to India as soon as I heard about my father's arrest in August 2000.

A friend who'd been watching BBC news called me at work and said: 'I think your dad's been arrested.' I didn't believe it, so we looked at the archive tapes and sure enough it was him.

I came out with Jerry [Ian's brother-in-law] to engage some lawyers, and then we went back to England.

Over that Christmas, the faxes my dad sent once a week started to deteriorate. He was feeling very lonely and having great difficulty in communicating, in arranging even a visit to the doctor.

So I dropped everything in London, where I'd been getting on my feet working with computers, and came out here full-time in March 2001.

I got a six-month tourist visa, thinking how hard can it be to prove that someone who's innocent hasn't done anything? I've had to extend that six-month visa twice and get a one-year extension.

Watched words

I now live in Simla, about 20km from the jail. It's a rotting colonial town that's turned into a kind of Blackpool in the mountains. It's not a fantastic place for a 23-year-old because there's not much to do - everything's focused around candyfloss.

It's made a big difference to him, having me nearby. My dad can only get visitors for 20 minutes a week, and he needs to make the most of that interaction, to see someone who can make him laugh.

And when he needs to get stuff done - like arrange hospital visits - well, I've been his interpreter for as long as I can remember. I learned [sign language] before I could talk.

Our visits do have to be quite guarded because the administration doesn't like criticism. They realise that I'm his only channel of communication outside the prison - even his letters get vetted.

When we speak I talk silently; just mouth the words so the guards can't understand what I'm saying. There's nothing they can do about the fact that I don't use my voice - it's just my habit.

My 23rd birthday fell on the day that he was transferred back to prison from a hospital in a neighbouring state last March. It was great because we spent the best part of a day together rather than 20 minutes.

I know it was in the back of a taxi; I know we were surrounded by nervous policemen. But we managed to get them to stop at a Pizza Hut on the way, and Dad even made me a birthday card from a Pizza Hut napkin. It's now framed on my wall.

Losing hope

What's kept us going for a long time was the hope that our campaign could make a difference beyond my father's case.

If the Indian judicial system could see the problems faced by a disabled person within the system, then maybe it could change things for the people he's been trying to help for a long time.

My dad's been campaigning for almost 30 years for rights for deaf people in India, but in court I realised that it's not the logistics or the financing that's difficult - it's the attitude, the public perception that deaf people are incapable. The judge of the highest court in the land even said that disabled people were drug smugglers.

I don't know what's going to motivate me now. But we've always been a very close family, and that helps keep us going. We have get-togethers every year and won't even entertain the thought that Ian will be missing from even one of these. "