A group of Burmese ethnic rebels currently held in an Indian jail will next week enter into a plea bargain in what could be a momentous final stretch in a marathon 12-year fight for justice.
The group, composed of 10 fighters from the Karen National Union (KNU) and 24 from the now-defunct National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA), were lured in 1998 to the Indian Andaman Islands by an Indian intelligence officer named Colonel Grewal, who offered them a safe haven. He has since disappeared, and evidence suggests he may have been a double agent working for the Burmese military.
On arriving on Indian soil the group were accused of weapons smuggling; six of the men were murdered by Indian security forces and the rest placed in detention, in what has come to be known as Operation Leech.
Their trial lawyer, Akshay Sharma, speaking exclusively to DVB in Delhi yesterday, said that use of the plea bargain – a predominantly western legal concept – was exceptionally rare in India, but was beneficial to all parties.
Moreover, human rights lawyer and chief advocate on the case, Nandita Haksar, said that “the Indian intelligence community are on trial here”. Indeed an intelligence officer, speaking under condition of anonymity, was quoted in the Indian press several months after the incident as saying that defense authorities were “deliberately adopting dilatory tactics”.
The implications of guilt for the Indian security services appeared in court after a 10-year wait for a single charge sheet to be produced, with evidence that Sharma said was “full of discrepancies”.
Key evidence such as the serial numbers of the supposedly smuggled weapons did not match, whilst “security reasons” stopped the Indian security services from bringing the explosives that the accused were charged with possessing to the Kolkata trial.
Lawyers have therefore suggested that the 12-year wait for a verdict and the “grey areas” have likely induced both prosecution and defence to for the plea bargain. One of the most telling of these “grey areas” was the failure by India’s own Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to produce key witnesses, such Colonel Grewal, the initial contact person for the freedom fighters. This was despite requests by the Indian state’s primary investigative bodies to produce this witness.
While the acquittal of the weapons smuggling charges has been “beneficial”, Haksar claimed that they conceal an ugly truth; a “hypocrisy” at the heart of Indian democracy. For whilst the 34 may soon walk free, it is now corroborated that the Indian security services have the blood of at least six Burmese rebels on their hands, while two more who were under custody “disappeared” during the course of the trial.
Their disappearance appears to be a misnomer when one considers the severity of the initial charges the Burmese were accused of. The charge of ‘waging war against the Indian state’ – a similar indictment to one brought on the Mumbai bombers – carries the maximum penalty of death, but they still managed to disappear, and no-one seems able to divulge their whereabouts, or indeed whether they are still alive. Moreoever, one of the early trial lawyers, T. Vasnatha, was murdered in what Sharma believes was an act of the Indian intelligence services.