Stillman. Photo: The Free Ian Stillman Campaign
were 20 to 30 in the room at any one time, and because of
his deafness and lack of Hindi, for Ian, it was like solitary
How did a middle-aged,
profoundly deaf amputee, who had dedicated his life to helping deaf
people in India, end up in a squalid jail, accused of drug trafficking?
Malcolm Doney listened to Ian Stillman's story
Ian Stillman and his
wife Sue had spent almost 30 years in pioneering work, providing
education, training and development opportunities for the neglected
deaf population of India, through the Nambikkai Foundation which
they set up in 1978.
Ian, whose work was supported
by international aid and development agencies, and who had been
the subject of a BBC documentary, also advised the Indian government
and other organisations on deaf issues.
It was in August 2000,
on a trip to northern India to the district of Himachal Pradesh
in Indian-administered Kashmir, that the nightmare began: "I
was invited to meet a powerful politician in the area who wanted
to talk to me about deaf issues."
The meeting over, Ian got into a public taxi, already occupied by
other passengers, to drive to the nearest town. Dozing in the cab,
he thought nothing of it when they were stopped at a police checkpoint.
But in the boot of the
car, the police found a bag that they claimed contained 20 kilos
of cannabis. The passengers were arrested and taken to a nearby
police station. It was dark, the police spoke in Hindi, which Ian
didn't understand, and it was too dark to lip read. Too his horror,
he then found out that his fellow passengers had been set free and
he was kept in custody.
He tried to explain that
he was deaf and needed and interpreter. He also explained that as
an amputee who relied on a stick to help him walk, there was no
way he could carry a 20-kilo bag, but no one would listen.
Transferred to jail,
he was given a lawyer who gave him mixed reassurances. "He
said: 'Don't worry, it's just a formality - these things happen
all the time.' I asked how long I was going to be there and he said
"six to eight months"!' He was stranded, hundreds of miles
from his wife and family who were back home in south India and no
one seemed in any hurry to solve the problem.
The trial, when it came
in March the following year, was a charade. It was conducted in
Hindi, but Ian was given no interpreter, and was prevented by his
deafness from answering his accusers, who even ludicrously claimed
he was an international criminal who had been wanted by Interpol
for 30 years.
"I felt like someone
had put a cardboard cut-out of me in the corner, which everybody
The ownership of the bag was inevitably at the centre of the case,
and highlighted a peculiarity of Indian law. "Say, someone
stole Big Ben and it reappeared in France," said Ian, "under
Indian law it would belong to France regardless of how it got there.
The police said I was in possession of the bag because it had been
dumped on me - the fact that it was impossible for me to have carried
it was of no relevance. It was still mine in their eyes, and the
fact that they were saying it was mine was enough."
All through the trial
his lawyers continued to reassure him that the case against him
was so weak, he'd be out by then end. The assurances continued right
up until the moment on June 2, the judged sentenced him to ten years'
imprisonment. The shockwaves went around the world.
Back in Britain, a 'Free
Ian Stillman' campaign was organised by his family and friends.
Over 91,000 people from 31 countries signed a petition demanding
his freedom. Politicians, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, John
Prescott, Jack Straw and even former US President Jimmy Carter spoke
up for him.
Meanwhile, Ian languished
in jail, the first being: "dreadful, very small and cramped.
People were crammed together like sardines, rigidly laid out shoulder
to shoulder. You couldn't move an inch. If one person moved, someone
else had to move as well. We were like dominoes." There were
20 to 30 in the room at any one time, and because of his deafness
and lack of Hindi, for Ian it was like solitary confinement.
He was later moved to
a prison in Kanda, near Chimla, close enough to his family that
they could visit and where conditions were better, if still extremely
During this stretch,
a succession of appeals was made. But bizarrely, both the appeal
court and India's Supreme Court refused to acknowledge that Ian
was deaf. One Supreme Court judge even remarked that it was common
knowledge that disabled people were involved in drug smuggling.
One human rights lawyer called it 'the worst miscarriage of justice
I have ever dealt with', and Ian still remained locked up. The one
concession he was granted was a wheelchair whose wheels promptly
fell off. Unable to move around easily, Ian found himself laying
down for 80% of the time.
Finally, on December
7, 2000, after concerted political and diplomatic pressure, not
least by the British High Commissioner to India, Sir Rob Young,
Ian was released by the Indian President on the understanding that
he would leave the country.
Reunited with his wife
Sue and children Lennie and Anita, Ian left the country had loved
so much and given so much of his life to and returned to the UK.
He misses India even if his love for the country has been tarnished
by his experiences. "India has its good points and its bad
points. Yes, I had bad experiences in the last three years but God
did so much for deaf people and I am glad for that. We did so much
that was valuable that I don't regret it.'
A thanksgiving service
for Ian's release was held in February 2004 at London's Westminster
For the full story of
Ian's work, his arrest, imprisonment and the campaign to free him,