‘The day ev­ery­thing was taken from us’

YVONNE MACHUGH, fi­ancée of Con­nel man Billy Irv­ing, jailed in India four years ago, re­counts her agony and fight for jus­tice

The Oban Times - - NEWS -

FOUR years ago I ar­rived in India and stood in the blis­ter­ing heat for six hours out­side the gates of Puzhal prison wait­ing for my Billy fi­nally to be free and the in­jus­tice to end.

Watch­ing all those men walk free was the most hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence of my life. It put ev­ery­thing into per­spec­tive and helped me to ap­pre­ci­ate the small­est things in my own life so much more.

I spent the next few months in India with Billy. We had lost ev­ery­thing back home, but we had each other again. With not a care in the world, we made sure we made the most of ev­ery sin­gle sec­ond we had to­gether. We as­sumed that in a few weeks he’d be free and we could re­turn home to­gether and live the life we’d al­ways dreamed of, the life we had be­fore this hor­rific case took over our lives. We soon re­alised it wasn’t going to be that easy and our life would never be the same again.

This is our story, a story I only thought be­longed in Hol­ly­wood movies or fic­tional books. The past four years have been a liv­ing night­mare. What we have en­dured and faced I never be­lieved pos­si­ble.

Billy was 33 when I dropped him at the air­port to start the first day of his new job with Ad­van­fort. I was just 23. We had only been to­gether for two years and dur­ing this time Billy had al­ways worked in mar­itime se­cu­rity. He would go away for two or three months at a time.

Billy of­ten spoke about the dan­gers of his job. We spoke about kid­nap­ping, drown­ing, be­ing shot or killed. I wasn’t ex­actly happy about it, but I un­der­stood that was the dan­ger.

We were young, full of fun and had a care­free at­ti­tude to life. But On Oc­to­ber 12, 2013, when a call came through from a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the com­pany Billy was work­ing for, Ad­van­fort, all that was taken from us.

The For­eign and Com­mon­wealth Of­fice (FCO) warned us from going pub­lic about our case, just to keep quiet and let the politi­cians talk be­hind closed doors as it could re­sult in a worse out­come and could put our men’s free­dom in jeop­ardy.

It wasn’t long be­fore we re­alised the sit­u­a­tion was wors­en­ing. We were promised our men would be home be­fore Christ­mas. I’ve lost count of how many times our case was up in court, and how many times we were promised that our men would be out within the week.

It was men­tally ex­haust­ing for the fam­i­lies in­volved, but for the men in prison with­out a visit from a lawyer, no in­for­ma­tion as to what was going on in court or be­tween gov­ern­ments or even so much as a phone call home, it was be­com­ing a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion. They were locked in a cell to­gether in a for­eign coun­try mil­lions of miles from home with­out a clue as to what was hap­pen­ing or why.

With Christ­mas fast ap­proach­ing and yet more failed at­tempts to re­lease our men from prison, we took the plunge and ap­proached the me­dia to tell them of our story. It was one so un­be­liev­able even they wouldn’t print or air it.

It started to feel like ev­ery­one was against us and we weren’t just fight­ing the bat­tle to free our men from prison, but we were also fight­ing against our own gov­ern­ment who were fail­ing to pro­tect their cit­i­zens from one of the big­gest mis­car­riages of jus­tice our coun­try has ever seen.

Now we were fight­ing against the national me­dia who sim­ply didn’t seem in­ter­ested that 35 in­no­cent men were in­car­cer­ated for a crime they didn’t com­mit. Six Bri­tish veter­ans, who risked their lives for their coun­try, didn’t seem to be a ‘sexy’ enough story for tabloid press or glossy morn­ing TV shows. None of it made sense then ... and to­day four years on it makes even less sense.

It’s not just our lives that have been dev­as­tated. On Oc­to­ber 12, 2013, 35 in­no­cent men were ar­rested on board the Sea­man Guard Ohio and the lives of 35 men and their fam­i­lies were cat­a­stroph­i­cally shat­tered and changed for­ever. Since that day our men have been sub­jected to com­plete and ut­ter men­tal tor­ture. Their hu­man rights have been vi­o­lated time and time again, their in­no­cence ques­tioned and their free­dom taken from them.

In June 2014, the case was quashed. I re­turned home from India where I was stay­ing with Billy while he was on bail. I col­lected the welcome home ban­ners and flags my mother had made in an­tic­i­pa­tion for his re­turn, and started plan­ning the big­gest welcome home party the world had ever seen, leav­ing Billy to sort pa­per­work out and get a flight home.

After a few weeks of me be­ing home, we found out we were ex­pect­ing our first child. It was a mas­sive mix of feel­ings. Billy still wasn’t home, but he had been proven in­no­cent, and soon he would be. My feel­ings turned to ex­cite­ment, love, and I couldn’t wait for the next chap­ter of our lives, and Billy would be there by my side ev­ery step of the way.

But on the 89th day of the 90 days

the po­lice had to ap­peal the quash de­ci­sion, an ap­peal was lodged and our lives once again were torn to shreds. It sim­ply could not be hap­pen­ing all over again.

I was fac­ing Billy re­turn­ing to prison once again, and fac­ing preg­nancy alone. It was, if pos­si­ble, even more fright­en­ing and un­be­liev­able than Oc­to­ber 2013. We had beaten a cor­rupt po­lice force in an­other coun­try once,

but could we do it again? On Fe­bru­ary 24, as I was flown by emer­gency air am­bu­lance to hope­fully welcome our first child into the world, Billy sat alone by his phone in dingy hos­tel room in India wait­ing for any news as to whether his child or I would make it.

Most men feel help­less at the birth of their chil­dren. But Billy was a mil­lion miles from home and couldn’t even give me a cud­dle and tell me ev­ery­thing was going to be OK. Some­thing had gone wrong, I was los­ing blood and our baby’s heart­beat had stopped. I was rushed onto an aero­plane alone when the he­li­copter couldn’t fly due to weather, and I couldn’t even call Billy to hear his voice or let him know what was hap­pen­ing.

Thanks to the in­cred­i­ble hos­pi­tal staff our beau­ti­ful boy was born, healthy and happy, and we named him after his dad. It should have been the hap­pi­est day of our lives. In­stead it was bit­ter­sweet.

There I was hold­ing the most in­cred­i­ble and beau­ti­ful baby but his father wasn’t there be­side me. Billy couldn’t hold his new­born son or thank the hos­pi­tal staff. He couldn’t cut the chord or snap a pic­ture on his phone of his fam­ily and up­load it on so­cial me­dia as most new fa­thers do.

Fur­ther­more, we had no idea when the day would come that he would fi­nally meet his boy. What Billy went through that day it is hard for any­one to com­pre­hend or un­der­stand, but it’s a day he can never get back again. A day my lit­tle fam­ily can never re­live.

At that point Billy had been cleared of all charges, the case was quashed and he was free to go home. He should have been home. He should have been home for our first scan, and for the anti-natal classes. He should have been look­ing at prams, and build­ing the nurs­ery fur­ni­ture with me.

He should have been be­side me when our son was born. But he wasn’t.

The In­dian au­thor­i­ties were hold­ing onto their travel doc­u­ments re­fus­ing to is­sue them with cer­tifi­cates to fly out the coun­try and the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment did noth­ing about it. Again our men were failed.

Billy met his son for the first time when he was four months old. He had missed his first cry, his first laugh, he’d missed the sleep­less nights and and morn­ing smiles. Billy was still a free man at this point, all charges had been quashed. He had the rights of an in­no­cent man to be home where he be­longed, yet still his free­dom was be­ing de­nied.

We had three weeks of for­get­ting why we were in India and be­ing a fam­ily for the first time. At home in Scot­land, I would watch as fam­i­lies walked round the su­per­mar­ket choos­ing their weekly shop and wished so hard that it was us.

So while in India that’s what we did. It sounds ridicu­lous but it was one of the best times of my life: we were fi­nally a fam­ily and fi­nally to­gether, de­spite ev­ery­thing that had been thrown at us. We made the most of ev­ery sec­ond we had to­gether be­fore we had to leave India and re­turn home, still with­out Billy.

Billy has shown such strength, courage and dig­nity through­out this whole process. I don’t know how he copes in the ar­chaic con­di­tions of Puzhal Prison but each time I’ve vis­ited he’s painted on a smile, made me laugh when all I want to do is cry and as­sured me that he is OK and not to worry.

I and Wil­liam have trav­elled to India to see Billy three times now but only once has been out­with the prison walls. De­spite ev­ery­thing, all the time apart and oc­ca­sions missed, Wil­liam and Billy have the most in­spi­ra­tional of bonds. See­ing them to­gether only makes me more de­ter­mined to en­sure we bring Billy and ev­ery last man who was ar­rested on board the Sea­man Guard Ohio home.

Four years on, we are no longer fight­ing for the Chen­nai Six alone. With more than 400,000 peo­ple sign­ing our pe­ti­tion, we re­alise just how many peo­ple care about the men in that prison cell, with­out beds, ad­e­quate food or even so much as a toi­let, not know­ing what’s ahead of them.

The let­ters and parcels the men are re­ceiv­ing from friends and strangers are what help them through the dark days. More and more me­dia out­lets are print­ing the men’s story, tak­ing an in­ter­est in both the case and our men not only as in­no­cent prison­ers, but as fa­thers, brothers, hus­bands and sons.

The amount of sup­port for our cam­paign we get now is hum­bling and pro­vides the fuel we need to carry on when we are run­ning on empty. But it’s not enough and never will be. Not un­til the day ev­ery last one of those men walks out of prison and into the arms of their loved ones.

I never imag­ined my life would turn out like this. It’s not ex­actly the fairy­tale I dreamed of as a lit­tle girl. But it has be­come my fairy-tale. I found my hand­some prince, whom I love un­con­di­tion­ally and will fight to the bitter end un­til he is free and home.

We have the most de­voted and car­ing par­ents, fam­ily and friends any­one could wish for and we have our lov­ing, clever, funny and crazy lit­tle Wil­liam who came into our lives un­ex­pect­edly, but at ex­actly the time I needed him. He keeps me strong, he keeps me smil­ing, and he is my lit­tle mini Billy look­ing after me and keep­ing me safe, just like his daddy did. And one day, hope­fully very soon, we will get our happy ever after.

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