India hopes extradition will shed light on arms drop

New Delhi promises Copenhagen that suspect will not receive the death penalty and will be allowed to serve jail sentence in Denmark.

Briton Peter Bleach (R) steps out from a British Deputy High Commissioner's car at the Netagi Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Calcutta, 06 February 2004.  Bleach who was serving a life sentence after being convicted of gun-traficking, was released from custody after eight years in jail on 04 February and left for London. AFP PHOTO/Deshakalyan CHOWDHURY
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KOLKATA // Denmark appears willing to extradite Niels Christian Nielsen, the alleged mastermind behind the parachute drop of a cache of weapons and ammunition in eastern India in 1995, in response to New Delhi's long-standing request. Mr Nielsen, also known as the Danish citizen Kim Peter Davy or Niels Holck, was arrested at his home in the city of Hillerød in Denmark, this month. He faces charges related to the dropping of more than 60 crates filled with weapons in West Bengal, on the night of December 17, 1995. Following the arrest of the 49-year-old fugitive, the Danish ministry of justice said it decided to comply with India's request for his extradition after receiving assurances from New Delhi that Mr Nielsen would not be given the death penalty if found guilty of the charges.

The Copenhagen Post last week quoted Danish ministry of justice sources as saying it had received a "guarantee" from New Delhi that Mr Nielsen "will not be subject to the death penalty, will be returned to Denmark to serve his sentence within three weeks of judgment, will have access to Danish diplomats and family, will be treated in line with UN conventions and will have his case tried as quickly as possible".

In 1995, five days after the weapons were dropped near a village in West Bengal's Purulia district, police arrested the five-member Latvian crew along with a British arms dealer, Peter Bleach, when their plane stopped for refuelling in Mumbai on its way back from Thailand. Mr Nielsen, who had been on the plane, vanished from the Mumbai airport and managed to escape from India. In 2000, a Kolkata court found Mr Bleach and the Latvian crew guilty of "waging war against India" and the six were sentenced to life imprisonment. Following the intervention of the then-Russian president Vladimir Putin, India pardoned the crew and they were returned to Moscow in 2000. In 2004 Peter Bleach also was released from the Kolkata jail after the British government requested he be pardoned.

Throughout the trial, Mr Bleach maintained that he had tipped off the British government about the air drop. Mr Bleach said Mr Nielsen had threatened to kill him and his daughter and so he had to go ahead with the mission. For years the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said it had evidence that Mr Nielsen, whom it identified as "the most crucial accused person" in the arms-drop case, was in Denmark. But it complained that it received no co-operation from Copenhagen on its request that he be extradited.

The CBI dossier said Mr Nielsen knew about the identity of the "real end users of the arms and ammunition", and the bureau was keen to dig out "many missing links to unravel the international conspiracy". A CBI officer, who could not be identified because he is not allowed to speak to the media about this sensitive case, said Mr Nielsen "masterminded the whole operation with the help of Peter Bleach and he [Mr Neilsen] can definitely help crack the mystery behind the Purulia arms drop. But if he does not co-operate even after he is extradited to India, it will be difficult to find headway in this case."

The officer added, "Davy [Mr Neilsen] was found in possession of two false British passports when he was arrested by Danish authorities. It is evident he is a criminal by nature. It will be not that easy for us to elicit the truth from him during interrogation." In an interview in 2008 with the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, Mr Bleach, who now lives in Britain, pointed to Mr Nielsen as the main suspect in the arms-drop case.

"In the Indians' eyes I was a little fish. They view Niels Holck [an alias for Mr Nielsen] as the ringleader of the weapons drop," Mr Bleach said. The CBI also charged that Mr Nielsen had joined the Hindu cult Ananda Marga (Path of Bliss) in the early 1990s and the huge arms consignment was meant for it to use in its battle against West Bengal's ruling communists. But the CBI could not present any evidence to prove its claim against the sect in the court and all arrested Marga members were acquitted.

Milon Mukherjee, their lawyer, told the court then that for argument's sake the group might be interested in pistols or even a few assault rifles, but not anti-tank weapons and rocket launchers, which were among the weapons discovered in the crates. Mr Bleach said he was "fairly sure" that the weapons were not meant for Ananda Marg. "Our aircraft simply got lost ? Nielsen messed up the drop," Mr Bleach told the South China Morning Post in 2004.

"But the most extraordinary thing which strikes me after all these years is that nobody has got to the bottom of the whole thing. Who wanted those guns and for what? ... Or, perhaps, the Indian government always knew what had happened and did not want it to become public knowledge." Mr Bleach told the Hong Kong-based newspaper he believed Ananda Marg was a smokescreen - all the arrested Margis were ultimately acquitted - for a much bigger game in which the British, Indian and probably American governments had stakes.

"I could be wrong," Mr Bleach said, "but the operation had all the hallmarks of a CIA job - possibly one offering covert support to an Indo-British attempt to destabilise Myanmar by arming Kachin rebels fighting the military junta." He said he believed the arms were dropped in West Bengal by mistake.