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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

5 Russian Airmen Stuck in Indian Jail

The five Russian aircraft crewmen from Riga thought they were signing on for three months of badly needed work flying cargo. What they got instead was a three-year nightmare in an Indian jail, where they face a potential death sentence on charges of airlifting guns and grenades for a religious sect in the Bengali mountains.

The five - along with a British national - have languished in abominable conditions without adequate legal representation and translators, their supporters say, as the Indian courts start to wade through the expected 200 witnesses at the trial.

The case of the five has been taken up by Russian diplomats and by the Russian Orthodox Church, even though four of them are stateless and officially have no country to help them. Their supporters say they're innocent and called for international pressure to free them at a news conference this week.

"Not only are they innocent and nobody has ever proved the opposite, they've already been harshly punished," said Grigory Kovrizhenko, a representative of the Russian Association for Cooperation with the United Nations, who is a member of the support group.

"The court process in India can last for years," Alexei Zolotukhin, the Russian consul in Calcutta, said by telephone from India. "They won't be able to endure it. Public awareness might help a faster prosecution and clarification."

The Indian authorities, however, say the court must decide what the facts are.

The saga began in Riga, Latvia, in 1995, when a man calling himself Kim Peter Davy from New Zealand bought an AN-26 transport plane from the Latavia company and hired the five: navigator Igor Moskvitin, flight operator Yevgeny Antimenko, commander Alexander Klishin, pilot Oleg Gaidash and flight engineer Igor Timmerman.

Only Gaidash held a Russian passport, while the others preferred the status of temporary residents of Latvia, which has made it difficult for Russians who settled there during Soviet times to become citizens.

Davy and an assistant also hired a British businessman named Peter Bleach to take care of logistical aspects of a business deal he was about to strike. In December, 1995, they flew to Burgas, Bulgaria, where three large containers marked "technical equipment" were loaded. Then the plane headed for India.

The crew's version, as passed on by their supporters, is that on Dec. 17, as the plane flew above Western Bengal, Davy and his assistant came into the cockpit - carrying AK- 47 automatic rifles. Davy, who speaks Russian, told the crew to deviate from their original route to the district of Purulia and threatened to have the crew's families in Riga killed if they disobeyed.

He forced the crew to descend to low altitude and push the containers out. Indian authorities say the containers held 300 Kalashnikov assault rifles, as well as rockets and grenades, for a fundamentalist Hindu sect called Ananda Marg, or Happy Path, which has established its own community in the area and has clashed - sometimes violently - with the Communist Bengal government. The Ananda Marg has denied involvement.

As soon as the plane landed in Bombay, Davy and his assistant got off and haven't been heard of since. The Russians and Bleach were taken to the police for questioning. When they told police what happened, they were arrested on the spot.

They are now facing charges of plotting and conducting military actions against India, punishable by up to life in prison or by the death penalty, said Karina Moskalenko, a Moscow defense lawyer.

Kovrizhenko and Moskalenko maintain Davy was allowed to disappear for murky political reasons, leaving the crew to serve as the scapegoats. "The Indian secret services needed to demonstrate their effectiveness. The fliers fell victim to internal political intrigues," Kovrizhenko said. They say Davy's name and citizenship are fake, and that he is a Dutch national wanted by Interpol on robbery charges.

Members of the support group visited India during Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's visit in December and attended court hearings. They said the head of the interrogation team didn't let them see the Russian consul, and for a long time they didn't have a translator. The lawyer hired by the men's families for $10,000 didn't exert himself much in their defense, supporters say, and stopped attending hearings when the pilots' wives ran out of money, having sold everything of value in their apartments.

A verdict is expected in spring, but even an acquittal probably would not be the end of the story - there will certainly be an appeal to the Bengal Supreme Court and then to the Indian Supreme Court. The case could drag on for years, Moskalenko said.

S. Chakravarti, spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Moscow, refused to comment in detail. "No foreign aircraft is allowed to drop anything over the Indian territory," he said. "It's up to the court to decide whether it was intentional or not." He said the Russian Consulate in Calcutta was to blame for the lack of a good translator and lawyer.

The pilots have been held in prison cells without beds, sleeping on mats on the floor and eating poor food. All of them are ill, with doctors giving them unknown medicine through the bars. Moskvitin suffers from drug-resistant tuberculosis, their supporters say, and Antimenko has had two heart attacks. The men have lost from 9 kilograms to 20 kilograms of weight.

The Reverend Dionisy Pozdnyayev, who learned about the case while visiting an Orthodox parish in Calcutta, was so shocked at their condition that he baptized four of them on the spot - something the church allows for those who may be on the brink of death.

On his return to Russia, Pozdnyayev told Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who in turn took the matter up with President Boris Yeltsin.

Their supporters say it would help if Russia would declare the four stateless crew members to be Russian citizens. Latvian consular officials have tried to help, but Russia has a lot more clout in India, a longtime ally, they say.

"At least two of them will not survive another hot summer in their stone shacks," Moskalenko said.