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Billy Irving’s toddler son William and fiancée Yvonne MacHugh will be at 10 Downing Street tomorrow (October 12) – the fourth anniversary of his incarceration in India – to hand over a massive petition pleading for government action to have him freed.
Exactly four years ago today, October 12, 2013, Indian authorities detained 35 security men, including Connel man Billy and five other British ex-servicemen, on board the anti-pirate patrol vessel Seaman Guard Ohio.
In January 2016 the ‘Chennai 6’ – Billy, John Armstrong, Nick Dunn, Nick Simpson, Paul Towers and Ray Tindall – were convicted of offences relating to the importation of their weapons into Indian territorial waters when the vessel went to refuel.
The Chennai 6, the Ukrainian captain and other Estonian and Indian guards and crew were sentenced to five years in an Indian prison. The anniversary of their fourth year in India will be spent in Chennai Central Prison waiting the results of an appeal that was heard in November 2016.
The men whose job was to protect commercial vessels from pirates in the Indian Ocean have now been held far longer than any hostage held off Somalia.
October 12 represents 1,461 days since their original arrest, and will be marked with a petition signed by 405,000 people being delivered to 10 Downing Street.
The petition will be delivered by family members of the Chennai 6, including Billy Irving’s two-year-old son, William, and John Armstrong’s five-year-old nephew Josh Armstrong.
It will be highly emotional for all involved. Billy is yet to spend a day at home with his son, who was born while he was in India. His fiancee, Yvonne MacHugh, has taken their son to visit Billy in prison. He has only spent a number of hours with the toddler.
John Armstrong hasn’t seen his nephew in four years. Josh’s school class have written to the men in prison to assure them they will not be forgotten.
On the same day, a parliamentary lobby will take place, hosted by Ian Lavery, Labour MP for Wansbeck, the constituency of Nick Dunn. MPs from all the men’s constituencies will be in attendance, alongside the Foreign Office and family members: Lisa Dunn, Margaret Dunn, Yvonne MacHugh, Jim Irving, Margaret Irving, Joanne Thomlinson and Helen Armstrong.
But the campaign stated: ‘Despite all this support, it is not enough. Six of our veterans are languishing in prison for doing their jobs. They should never have been charged. Armed guards effectively stopped Somali piracy and weapons are routinely taken in and out of India. Why this case led to any charges being made is not known. The weapons were lawful and had been exported from the UK in strict compliance of UK law.
‘No matter how small a step forward it may be, it’s a step forward none the less. Perhaps the lobby and petition will enable us to leap forward and bring the Chennai 6 home for Christmas.’
Meanwhile, the campaign suffered another setback last week when the presiding judge stepped down, which means the case will have to be heard again.
The Chennai 6 Facebook page said : ‘Today we received an update on our appeals process. We have waited nearly 11 months for the judge to finally decide that the case is too complicated for him so he has withdrawn from it.
‘This means that it now needs to be reissued to another judge and a new appeal needs to be heard.
‘The only positive we must try to draw from it is that at least he has stepped down rather than saying the conviction is to stand so we can only continue to hope and pray that the new judge who is allocated this case is of a higher calibre and experienced enough to finally make a decision and make the correct decision.’