Thirty-four Burmese political exiles detained for 11 years in a jail in Kolkata were allowed on Thursday to present defense testimony before a court in the Indian city, according to local sources.
Twenty-four of the detainees are members of the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA). The other 10 are members of the Karen National Union. They were arrested in 1998 in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during a joint Indian military exercise codenamed “Operation Leech,” which also netted a large cache of arms, ammunition and explosives.
The detainees were accused of attempting to smuggle weapons to Indian insurgent groups.
Tint Swe, a New Delhi-based minister of the National Coalition Government of Union of Burma (NCGUB), the Burmese government in exile, told The Irrawaddy that he and three other defense witnesses had testified before the court on Wednesday and Thursday.
Tint Swe said he had told the court that the accused had entered India because they hoped to find support there for Burmese pro-democracy efforts. He said he told the court: “They didn’t come to destroy India.” Akshay Sharma, one of the defense lawyers, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the final statements will be heard by the court on Dec. 15 and a final verdict is expected in January 2010.
“India is a democratic country and it has a very good judicial system,” Sharma said. “We are very optimistic that the accused will receive justice and that they will be acquitted.”
The accused claim they had reached a deal with Indian intelligence allowing them to establish a base on Landfall Island in the Nicobar and Andaman archipelago in exchange for providing intelligence on Chinese naval activities in the Andaman Sea.
They claim the deal was broken by Indian intelligence officials after intervention by the Burmese military regime and that six of their leaders had been killed one day after arriving on Landfall Island.
Until 1990 India supported the cause of democracy in Burma, but then adopted a “Look East Policy” to counter Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. A closer relationship was developed between India and Burma, trade increased and India supplied the Burmese regime with military hardware.
Commenting on the background of the case, NUPA chairman Khin Maung told The Irrawaddy: “Our people got agreement from the Indian Intelligence to buy arms at that time. They had a deal. Indian intelligence knows A to Z about them.”
Rights activists have asked the Indian government to release the detained 34, and last year two countries, East Timor and the Czech Republic, announced their readiness to accept them as refugees. Lawyers representing the accused say applications for refugee status are now being processed by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.