There is a ray of hope for the early release of 34 Myanmar nationals who are being tried on charges of gun running in Kolkatta court, twelve years after they were arrested in the midst of the mysterious “Operation Leech” in Andaman’s Landfall Islands,
Their defence lawyers have moved a petition on May 5, 2010 for plea bargain, to get the permanent culmination of the proceedings and to spare them from further possible detention.
The move has been made because 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.
The defence lawyer want the negotiations on plea bargain should end with a single hearing, the prosecutor in this case the CBI has told the court they may need time to decide on the future course of action.
The CBI so far has presented 20 prosecution witnesses but has not been able to challenge the contention of the accused that they were “freedom fighters” who were betrayed by an Indian Military Intelligence.
‘Operation Leech’ refers to Indian intelligence sting operation capturing 34 Myanmar nationals in Andaman’s Landfall Island on February 8, 1998. The Indian Army claimed to have caught a "international gang of gun smugglers” who were aiding anti-Indian separatists in the region and waging a war against the nation.
However, as the trial progresses now it’s becoming clear that the "international gang of gun smugglers" were none other than Karen National Union (KNU) and National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) rebels fighting the military junta and were helped by India.
Indian military agents were clandestinely supporting them for years offering a base in the Landfall islands for storage of arms procured from third country to fight the military rule in Myanmar.
The Indian military agents for some unknown reasons abruptly changed its policy and apprehended them at Landfall Island on charges of being "international gang of gun smugglers.”
Actually 40 members were arrested, out of them six NUPA activists were whisked away and were killed in cold blooded manner by the Indian military agents. The rest were disarmed, shackled and held in different areas of the Andaman Island.
The 34 Myanmar nationals were detained for nine years and were in legal limbo with no formal charges framed against them. They were denied even councilor access under detention. However, due to pressure from human rights group the Supreme Court directed the case be transferred to a sessions court in Kolkata in December 2004. The chargesheet was filed in 2004 and in 2006.
Even as the four-year long trial against the Myanmar nationals drags on in Kolkata, many of the details as to what transpired on Landfall Islands on February 8, 1998, is not yet to known.
Notwithstanding the facts, the revelations emerging from the ‘Operation Leech’ trial in Kolkatta, suggests, New Delhi’s alleged past link with rebel groups in Myanmar.
Indian intelligence operatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s spent years cultivating ties with rebel groups fighting Myanmar’s military rule. They made several offers of logistical support to the Arakan and Chin insurgent groups operating in Myanmar’s remote western border regions.
The Karen National Union (KNU) and National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) have both claimed in court to have received support from Indian intelligence operatives for years before ‘Operation Leech.’
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”.
Then Naval Chief Vishnu Bhagwat had attacked this as a needless obsession with human rights that jeopardized the Navy”s operations.
Any way this sordid human drama of making friends and helping them and then betrayal arrest and killing is drawing to a close with the moving of the application for plea bargain by those who have been in captivity for 12 years or so.
Such a compromise seems to the best option for the parties concerned. The prosecution in this case the CBI is perusing a weak case. It is due to lack of evidence CBI was forced to drop one of the initial charges that accused attempted to wage war against India.
As far those who have been bearing the burnt “endless delays” the plea bargain is best way to put a full stop to it. Even in the interest of justice and to save the precious time of the respectable judicial machinery in India this could be best possible justice rendered in this case.
What would be the final outcome of this case is still uncertain. In spite of orders from the Supreme Court for a day-to-day hearing, the pace of the trial has been slow. Even its time for this this reality show to play itself out, we may have to wait and watch it for some more time.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at email@example.com