Deaf, one-legged charity worker Ian Stillman's imprisonment in an Indian jail brought protest from thousands of Evening Press readers. Reporter Adam Nichols speaks to him for the first time since his release.

THE KINDNESS of strangers overwhelmed hardened prison staff charged with controlling what entered the cells of Kanda prison, high in India's Himalayan foothills. Mail was usually torn open and carefully examined before it reached inmates.

But, as the demand for deaf charity worker Ian Stillman's release grew, its strength was too great even for these guards.

"I was getting hundreds of letters from all over the world from people I had never heard of," says Ian, speaking from his parents' York home.

"There was a postman who would walk a couple of miles to the prison. One day he arrived carrying two big cardboard boxes full of letters. Normally the authorities would open them all, but they got so fed up with the amount I was receiving they gave them straight to me. No wonder they wanted to get rid of me."

The massive support helped Ian, 53, who had a leg amputated after a traffic accident, survive each day. His son, Lennie, would tell him of the campaign to have him released during the short visits he was allowed weekly, but it was the arrival of the mail that showed him he was not forgotten.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I remember when I was released and I arrived back at the airport, there were all these people there, so many supporters and cameramen and reporters. I couldn't believe it."

Ian, a father of two, had served two years of a ten-year sentence after being convicted of possessing 20 kilograms of cannabis, a charge he has always refuted. Despite being profoundly deaf, he was denied a sign language translator at his trial, effectively stopping him from taking any part and denying him his basic human rights.

It took the British Government's intervention, spurred on by huge public pressure including an Evening Press campaign, to get him released. Even now, the Indian authorities consider him a guilty man, freed only because of ill health.

Now living close to his sister in Romsey, Hertfordshire, Ian made only his second trip to York since his release in December to join his parents Roy and Monica and celebrate his mother's 80th birthday.

In December he had sat stunned at a hastily organised and crowded press conference at Heathrow airport. He was pale, thin, tired and emotional. Now he looks well fed, relaxed.

He had specifically requested the interview, keen to speak directly to the thousands of Evening Press readers who petitioned demanding his release.

Monica must have dreaded her son would be an absent guest at her 80th celebrations. The elderly couple, who live in Tadcaster Road, made sure their son's plight was not forgotten. Since the day they saw pictures of Ian, confused and frightened, being led off by Indian police beamed worldwide on the BBC, their dedication to bringing him home was tireless.

"The Himachal Pradesh region was well known for handicrafts sold for tourism, and I was there trying to set up a project for the deaf in the area to make them," says Ian.

"I was travelling by taxi at night when I was stopped. In India it's quite common for the police to have check- points so I thought it was just a routine thing. What surprised me was the number of police officers. There were about ten there, instead of the usual two or three. I was asked questions but I had no idea what was being said. I couldn't see their lips because it was so dark. I should not have been travelling by night but did it to save time.

"Knowing what I know now, it is unsafe for anybody who is deaf to travel at night in India."

He said he was taken to a police station where he first saw a bag full of 20 kilograms of cannabis, the bag he was supposed to be carrying. He was also met by a camera crew, a team usually based ten hours journey away in Delhi whose presence has raised suspicions that the arrest had been planned.

"I think I was deliberately set up," he says. "I don't know who set me up, whether it was somebody I had been speaking to before I started the journey or whether it was somebody higher up in the authorities, but the fact that the BBC had been primed to expect my arrest suggests it had been planned."

Ian was put in a cell with up to 33 other inmates. He had to wait six months for his trial, and was not allowed to even make a statement and he was found guilty. "The lawyers kept saying don't worry, everything would be all right. But I may as well have been a cardboard cut-out," he says. "There was no point in me being at that trial."

He was moved to a different cell near Shimla. "It had open windows with iron bars but no glass," he says. "Wind and rain came into the room. I tried to block the window with card, but it was blown straight out."

He sat through an appeal to the High Court, and another in the Supreme Court. Both failed. The judges refused to believe he was deaf.

"All the time I was sure that something would happen," he says. "Something had to happen, I never really believed that I would be there for ten years. I don't feel angry about what happened to me. Anger is a very negative feeling and it doesn't help at all. I try to look positively at it.

"It is difficult for me because my work with the deaf is in India, but I can do a lot in England."

Ian's wife Sue still lives in India. She is training somebody to manage the charity the couple set up before she returns to England for an indefinite period in August.

Ian is planning a return trip to the country in December, but only for a month.

"I can't go for longer because the authorities still consider me guilty," he says. "When I am healthier I will try to clear my name, but for now I am staying in England.

"It is nice to be back and I am grateful to the people of York. My parents told me what they did and, when I am feeling better, I will be back. There are so many people I want to meet."

Updated: 10:28 Wednesday, July 09, 2003