Twelve years after they were arrested in the midst of the mysterious “Operation Leech” in Andaman’s Landfall Islands, there is a ray of hope for the early release of 34 Myanmar nationals who are being tried on charges of gun running.
Earlier this month, even as the four-year long trial against the Myanmar nationals drags on in Kolkata, defence lawyers have moved a petition to enter into a plea bargain with the prosecuting agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The May 5 petition states that “the applicants would like to plea bargain, to get the permanent culmination of the proceedings and to get their release and to spare themselves from further possible detention”.
The petition also mentions the fact that the 34 accused persons already have “under consideration” certificates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided they are released by the Indian court.
Civil rights lawyer Nandita Haksar, who has been campaigning for the release of the Myanmarese since long and also appeared in court as one of the four defence witnesses, explained the rationale behind the move. “In case the 34 men are acquitted, the prosecution may decide to move a higher court and that is why we have chosen the plea bargain route,” she said. “In any case, their maximum imprisonment period for charges they face is seven years and they have already spent 12 years in jail, first in Port Blair and now in Kolkata.”
While Haksar says the negotiations on plea bargain should end with a single hearing, the CBI has told the court they would need time to decide on the future course of action. The CBI, in fact, has been walking a tightrope in the case and despite presenting 20 prosecution witnesses has not been able to challenge the contention of the accused that they were “freedom fighters” who were betrayed by an Indian Military Intelligence agent, Lt Col V S Grewal, who had promised them a base in the Landfall islands.
The “Operation Leech” story goes back to February 8, 1998 when the Indian Army claimed to have caught a group of gun-runners who were aiding anti-Indian separatists in the region. The circumstances in which “Operation Leech” was conducted and the subsequent arrest of the Mynamar nationals had also led to a war of words between former Defence Minister George Fernandes and ex-Naval Chief Vishnu Bhagwat. A note dated July 27, 1998 issued by the then Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar — under instructions from Fernandes — asked all three service chiefs to exercise “utmost restraint in launching operations in the Andamans, “in view of objections likely to be raised by Myanmar and Thailand”. Bhagwat had attacked this as a needless obsession with human rights that jeopardised the Navy”s operations .
Six leaders of the group were killed during the Operation and the rest detained in a prison in Port Blair. The chargesheet in the case was filed in 2004 and in 2006, the Supreme Court directed that the case be transferred to Kolkata and despite orders for a day-to-day hearing, the pace of the trial has been slow.
Citing “endless delays” as one of the reasons for moving the application for plea bargain, the accused have now stated that such a compromise was best suited “in the interest of justice and to save the precious time of the respectable judicial machinery in India.”