Falling on deaf ears
You are in: surefish > faith > Ian Stillman interview
Date: 21 April, 2004

Ian Stillman. Photo: The Free Ian Stillman Campaign

'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.'


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 ignored."


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 spartan.

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 Chapel.

For the full story of Ian's work, his arrest, imprisonment and the campaign to free him, visit http://www.ianstillman.fsnet.co.uk/

© Christian Aid
Surefish.co.uk - the Christian community website from Christian Aid

Christian Aid is a member of the