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The Safe Return of Ian Stillman

Category Articles
Date January 27, 2003

The Daily Telegraph reported the following on 3rd January:

“The room is festooned with balloons that go far beyond the usual seasonal displays. Outside, yards of bunting drape across the guttering. A “Welcome Back Ian” poster is pinned to a noticeboard.

“Just over three weeks ago, Stillman, who is deaf and diabetic and walks with an artificial leg, was released from a Himalayan prison where he was imprisoned for two years on drugs charges.

“The 52-year-old Christian charity worker’s ordeal has been described by human rights activists as one of the worst miscarriages of justice ever to have befallen a British citizen. Both Tony Blair and Jack Straw intervened to secure his release, and he was finally freed, on medical grounds, in early December.

“”It’s difficult to believe this whole experience has taken two years out of my life, but I am so glad to have spent Christmas with my family,” he says. “There were times when my health was so bad that I really didn’t know whether I would leave my prison cell vertically or horizontally.”

“Later, I learn from Stillman’s Indian wife, Sue, that his sleeplessness has nothing to do with jet lag; the screaming phantom pains from his amputated leg are what keep him awake through the night. Denied medical treatment in prison, he is waiting – and hoping – that the painkillers he is receiving now will soon start to take effect.

“Stillman is an earnest-looking man, with tousled brown hair and tinted glasses. For the past 30 years, he has lived in India, helping and teaching the deaf, and setting up two ground-breaking charities.

“He is public-school educated and has never lacked social confidence. Yet when he was released from prison, and a press conference was held, he gestured in sign language and allowed his 23-year-old son, Lennie, to speak for him.

“”I had been misunderstood so often after I was arrested that I wanted to make sure that I was being completely understood,” he says. For a man so accustomed to forging his own path in the world, this must have been an immensely difficult concession to make.

“Today, his sister, Elspeth Dugdale, in whose home he is staying, hovers in the background, to help with interpretation. But, when I remember to enunciate properly, Stillman lipreads without difficulty, and his spoken replies are perfectly intelligible, if slow. I ask him about his health, and his reply is matter-of-fact.

“”I think a medical expert could tell you how much the prison environment damaged my health permanently. But at this stage, I simply don’t know.”

“Stillman was held in a filthy, cramped prison cell, 23 by 12 feet, with up to 31 other men at a time, and his health deteriorated to the point where his body would go into excruciating spasm for hours – and sometimes even days – on end. Denied medication and living on subsistence rations that failed to regulate his diabetes, he experienced numbness in his extremities and feared that his second leg might be at risk.

“Yet he is reluctant to dwell on the privations of prison, and instead jokes that as the prisoners all slept shoulder to shoulder, if anyone moved in the night it would set off a domino effect around the room.

“His family describe him as a stoic by nature; being deaf, he has learnt to be self-reliant. Even so, he appears extraordinarily composed for someone who has endured the loss of his freedom, his mobility (his artificial leg and walking stick were both confiscated in prison) and, to a degree, his self-belief.

“”I had a feeling of powerlessness I’d never had before, despite my disability,” says Stillman. “My whole philosophy of life collapsed, which was terrible; I’d spent 30 years telling deaf people that they can succeed, they can be part of society, and there I was, utterly powerless.

“”I was convicted at a trial where I couldn’t understand a word, because everyone spoke Hindi and they wouldn’t give me an interpreter. I wasn’t treated like a human being, I was just a cardboard cut-out or an object in the corner being talked about.”

“Stillman, whose right leg was amputated above the knee after a road accident in 1995, became deaf at the age of two. His family were living in Kenya, where his father was working for the government, and Stillman believes he was given an excessive dose of quinine to prevent malaria.

“But his disability didn’t dim his adventurous streak; after spending his gap year teaching deaf children in India in 1972, he decided to abandon plans for a career in industrial design in Britain, and stayed on. He met and married an Indian Christian – Sue, now 52 – and, as well as Lennie, the couple have a daughter, Anita, 20.

“Stillman and his wife were based in Kanniyakumari, in Tamil Nadu, at the southernmost tip of India. Here, they ran the Nambikkai Foundation, a pioneering project providing education and vocational training for deaf adults.

“His other charity, Deaf Child, teaches computer skills, and at the time of his arrest, he had been awarded a £280,000 National Lottery grant to extend its work throughout India. In a country where deafness is widely regarded as punishment for a misdemeanour in a previous life, Stillman offered hope to those whom society had shunned.

“In August 2000, he was on a fact-finding trip in the Himalayan valley of Kullu when he was arrested, late one night, at a road block. He had been travelling by taxi and was sleeping when he was shaken awake by police.

“”I can lip-read English, but I need a good light and the person has to be facing me,” he says. “We were in darkness and I just couldn’t tell what was happening. I felt angry that I couldn’t communicate, but that was about it.”

“Back at the police station, however, it slowly began to dawn on Stillman that he was being accused of drug smuggling. A 20kg bag of cannabis had been found in the taxi, and the authorities appeared determined to prove it was his.

“”Because I’ve only got one leg, I’m not physically capable of lifting something that heavy. I can barely lift a shopping bag,” he says. “But throughout this whole thing, no one seems to have acknowledged that simple fact.”

“Events ran an increasingly nightmarish course. Stillman was forced to sign paperwork he couldn’t read, and was locked up. He was unable to contact his family – he can’t use a telephone – and Sue only learnt of his arrest several days later, on the BBC World Service.

“Stillman’s pleas for an interpreter went unheeded and, as a result, he was unable to participate in his own trial. Despite a dossier of medical evidence collated by his family in a bid to secure his release, one judge insisted that he wasn’t deaf at all, but was merely hard of hearing. After a trial lasting two-and-a-half months, at which he was denied the right to speak, Stillman was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in June 2001.

“”My main concern was Sue,” he says. “She collapsed and took the whole thing very badly. I was very worried about how she would cope and whether she would be able to continue to work on our projects.”

“As Stillman’s family lobbied politicians and campaigning groups in Britain and India, Lennie left his job as a web designer in London and moved to Simla, to be close to his father, who had been transferred to a more modern jail.

“Here, conditions were less crowded, and Stillman was given a wheelchair, but, isolated by the language rather than the hearing barrier, he couldn’t communicate with his cellmates. Instead, he increasingly drew on his Christian faith and threw himself into reading. His sister and her husband run a bookshop in Romsey, and would regularly send him packages.

“There were no heater or windows in his cell, and in the freezing chill of the Himalayan winter, he often spent 24 hours a day in bed, wrapped up in his sleeping bag and reading through an eclectic list of books, from Harry Potter stories to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. He also worked on his charity projects, and drew up plans to devise a single sign language to unite India’s 45 million deaf people.

“”Wherever we are, we always have time; and time has value, just like money,” he says. “I could have frittered it away, but instead I chose to do something useful and that’s what kept me sane. The authorities let me have paper and pencils and so I drew up proposals and budgets; it was important for me to keep things going.”

“After Stillman lost his appeal against conviction in January of last year, his family and supporters hoped he might be granted a presidential pardon, although they are rarely given. Jack Straw had regularly lobbied on behalf of Stillman, and Tony Blair is understood to have written to the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in November, asking for him to be freed on compassionate grounds.

“Then, in December, Stillman was released on grounds of ill health. Now back in Britain, he is receiving physiotherapy and his family is trying to raise funds for a state-of-the-art artificial leg.

“Sue is preparing to return to India to manage their charity projects. Stillman, however, has no idea when – or if – he’ll be allowed to return to his adoptive country. He appears both weary and frustrated that, yet again, his life is out of his control, but there is no trace of anger. “People ask me why I want to go back, but I have to: I have work to finish in India,” he says. “Being here is like being stuck in prison again.”

“His experience, he says, has affected his perception of the world. “I used to tell people – deaf people – that all they needed to get on in life was a huge dose of self-confidence and a ‘go for it’ attitude,” he says. “I now think you have to be a bit cautious.”

“I ask him if he doesn’t feel even a little bitter that he should be treated so wretchedly by the country he has dedicated his life to helping.

“”I don’t want what happened to me to influence how I feel about India,” he says. “I am married to an Indian, I’ve lived there 30 years, and half of me feels Indian. I can’t feel bitter about that.”

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