The story of an existential gunrunner

Criminal gunrunner or a pawn in trade relations between India and Denmark? Niels Holck’s idealistic misadventure in the mid-‘90s triggered an unresolvable diplomatic crisis between the two countries. India wants to prosecute the Dane for his role in the 1995 Purulia arms drop. But a new documentary has shed light on the shadowy complicity of the British and Indian intelligence agencies and questions whether his mission was actually just an act of vigilantism

In 1995, Niels Holck decided to arm guards protecting a Hindu organisation, the Ananda Marga, in the Indian state of West Bengal following years of relentless attacks by the ruling Marxists. He escaped back to Denmark and has been the target of an extradition battle for over a decade. In 2011 the Eastern High Court decided that he couldn’t be delivered to India due to the risk of torture, plunging Denmark into a deep diplomatic crisis with the world’s largest democracy after they imposed trade and visa sanctions on Denmark in retaliation.

Holck is an animated man with a greying goatee and wiry frame who now lives north of Copenhagen in a small community with his wife and two children. He explains that while he is upset that his case has brought Denmark and India into conflict, he is unrepentant about his decision to fly weapons into India almost two decades ago.

“The arms drop was a last resort after we exhausted all civil society opportunities to stop the violence. The UN Declaration of Human Rights gives people the right of self-defence against repetitive aggression from governments and this is the situation I lived under in India. It was my home at the time and the aggressor was the government. In Denmark we couldn’t imagine a policeman taking off his uniform and killing people around him. From a Danish perspective it might be difficult to understand, but the world works differently over there,” Holck says.

Holck’s story has been retold in a new documentary by Andreas Kofoed, The Arms Drop, which takes viewers through the complicated series of events leading up to and following the arms drop. The documentary threatens to reignite the conflict with India, which wants Holck to face charges of arms smuggling – a view shared by many in the Danish media and political establishment. The visa and trade restrictions may be responsible for the 17.8 per cent decline in Danish exports to India between 2011 and 2012 and India has shown no signs of easing the sanctions until it is satisfied that Holck has been held accountable for his actions.

Holck’s guilt has long been established and he has offered to face trial in a neutral setting where he doesn’t risk the mistreatment that likely awaits him in Indian custody. Even if he is tried, however, the jury wouldn’t be given the whole story. Kofoed’s documentary suggests that the British and Indian intelligence agencies helped facilitate the arms drop, as their interests intersected with Holck’s. But the true extent of their involvement remains a mystery as an Interpol report about the incident remains classified.

The conflict is far from resolved and Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard recently spoke out against the documentary for sympathising with Holck. But Lidegaard has sadly missed the point of the documentary that lifts the lid on the murky world of diplomacy and asks whether breaking the law to mete out justice is ever justifiable.

Criminal aid worker
Holck’s story starts in the 1970s when he left Denmark in search of adventure and discovered it in development programmes around the world. He was particularly drawn to the rolling hills of West Bengal where the Ananda Marga operated. He returned often to the region throughout the 1980s and 1990s and helped fund the organisation’s development projects with revenue earned by illegally smuggling gold in Asia.

Despite their stated peaceful goals, Holck says the Ananda Marga was the target of systematic attacks by mobs armed by the Marxist-controlled police.

“During the many years I visited the project the non-violent Margis were routinely raped and murdered and had their property destroyed by the police. No one was in doubt. Human rights groups and judges all agreed that the murders had to stop. Schools were burned down, hospitals destroyed.”

Among the attacks is the 1982 Bijon Setu massacre in which 17 members of the organisation were murdered in broad daylight, the 1990 attack on American volunteer Patricia Munday, as well as the 1995 murder of agriculturalist and close friend of Holck’s, Asimananda. Photographs of his mutilated body are shown in the documentary, together with the bodies of Asimananda’s four guards who were also murdered in the same incident.

Holck says he was given political approval to arm the community. He was put in touch with a British arms dealer, Peter Bleach, who realised early on that the weapons drop wasn’t legal. Bleach immediately made contact with the British government and met several times with officers representing the intelligence agency MI5, who shared the information with Indian intelligence.

The Drop
Holck says he knew all along that the Indian government was aware of his plans, and that they were in fact sanctioned by some MPs in the ruling Congress Party who regarded the Communists in West Bengal as a liability. If a conflict did break out in the region following the arms drop, it would give them an excuse to intervene and remove the Communists once and for all.

“India’s central government agreed that we could defend ourselves. When MI5 informed RAW, the prime minister’s spy unit, they told us to keep them posted so that they could turn off the military radar when we made the drop. You could call my ambitions naïve, but I’m not so naïve that I would try to fly into India without some sort of shield,” Holck says.

Bleach says that while MI5 urged him not to supply the weapons to prevent a paper trail back to the British government, it was important that the weapons made it into India so that Holck could get caught in the act. He bought Holck an Antonov An-26 plane in Latvia for the arms drop and thought his job was done. But when the plane landed in Bulgaria to pick up the weapons, a problem arose with its certification that only Bleach could fix.

Bleach flew to Bulgaria to sort out the issue and there Holck persuaded him to join the flight. Remembering his instructions to ensure the plane entered India air space, and not wanting to appear suspicious, he acquiesced. The plane made stops in Iran and Pakistan before the final stop in Varanasi, northern India, ahead of the final leg over Purulia in West Bengal where they were to make the drop.

Bleach was convinced that the Indian government would choose to apprehend them in Varanasi, but there was no one there to greet them. He worried that the government would instead choose to shoot down the plane as it flew over Purulia, but they dropped the weapons and flew on to Phuket, Thailand, without incident.

The weapons missed their intended target and their discovery was breaking news on the BBC when they awoke the next day. Holck wanted to fly on to Bali and return to Europe, but Bleach argued it would look more suspicious if they deviated from their flight plan that took them back through India. Bleach actually wanted to give the Indian government another opportunity to apprehend Holck and, after convincing the crew, they set off.

Holck relaxed when there was no one waiting for them at their first stop in Madras, but when air traffic control ordered them to land in Bombay he started to worry. The forced landing was actually ordered because of a mix-up in the flight plans, and had nothing to do with the arms drop. But Holck decided not to take any chances and absconded from the airport. He says an Indian MP and connections in the Indian intelligence agency, CBI, helped ferry him north to Nepal where he returned to Denmark.

But Holck’s disappearance had devastating consequences for Bleach and the five Latvian crew members. Noticing Holck’s disappearance, the airport authorities arrested Bleach and the crew on immigration offences. While in custody, Bleach informed the Indian police of the weapons drop, thinking he would be protected once his connection to the MI5 was revealed. But instead, he and the crew were flown to Kolkata in West Bengal, where they were put on trial for their role in the arms drop and given life sentences.

While Bleach and the five Latvian crew members were locked up in Kolkata, Holck lived underground in Denmark. He slowly became reintegrated, needing only register with Danish police a few times a week, before he was eventually encouraged to apply for a social-security number and start paying tax.

Holck believes that he was given the green light to resume a normal life in 2002 when the then-foreign minister Lene Espersen gave her guarantee that Holck would not be extradited. The statement arrived as Denmark was passing new laws that for the first time ever would allow Danish citizens to be extradited beyond the EU. Holck saw Espersen’s timing as an indication that the government had no intention of applying the rules to him. He decided it was safe to start a family, and shortly after his first child was born.

But in 2010, the government finally gave in to India’s extradition demand.

“If an Indian flew over Denmark and dropped weapons for terrorists we would also expect India to extradite that person for prosecution,” then-justice minister Lars Barfoed told DR at the time.

The extradition failed, however, after Holck won his appeal in both the Hillerød City Court and the Eastern High Court. Despite diplomatic guarantees that Holck wouldn’t face the death sentence or torture, the courts found they were insufficient to ensure his safety.

Both Amnesty International and the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, have argued that diplomatic guarantees offer little real security in countries such as India, where the use of torture is widespread.

Meanwhile, Bleach was released in 2004 following pressure from the British government. His testimony at the High Court was central to the High Court’s decision not to extradite Holck. He gave a first-hand account of eight years in an Indian prison, where he contracted tuberculosis, and argued that without his military training he would not have survived. Holck would definitely have suffered, he argued.

India, infuriated by the state prosecutor’s decision not to appeal to the Supreme Court, responded with sanctions. But the case appeared closed and Holck again thought he could move on.

Never-ending conflict
Then Kofoed released his documentary in June. Despite not having watched it, Foreign Minister Lidegaard condemned it for portraying Holck as a martyr.

“From what I have heard about the film it appears to be a one-sided and biased defence of Niels Holck who is wanted in India for very serious crimes,” Lidegaard told BT.

“The Danish government had decided to extradite Niels Holck to India to be tried with the necessary guarantees. The Danish government condemns all forms of terrorism and considers it highly important that those guilty of crimes are held accountable and brought to justice.”

When asked about Lidegaard’s statement, Holck leans back, crosses his arms and pauses for effect.

“Lidegaard’s statement could be taken out of any fascist regime’s handbook. India sees it as an invitation to start up extradition proceedings again and it sent me into a black hole. Not that I can cry over having my own life destroyed. I made the decision to drop the weapons after seeing my friends get killed. I cannot undo it and I live with it every day. But I cannot forgive the Danish government for promising that this wouldn’t happen in 2002 before I decided to have two children and now they threaten to take that away from me. It’s unforgiveable in a Western democracy to first say you are free, but then come after me after I finally decide it’s safe to have a family. So sure, I bear a grudge.”

Statements like this have not endeared him to some of the documentary’s critics, who accuse Holck’s performance in the documentary of amounting to emotional blackmail.

“The film offers a sentimental and misleading picture of two disreputable weapon smugglers and anti-communists who have swapped out their machine guns with crocodile tears and who now want to appear as victims, parents and human-rights campaigners,” Information newspaper wrote.

State complicity
Any sympathy viewers might have for Holck or Bleach is moderated by the knowledge that both knew the risks they faced. Bleach continued to work with Holck despite knowing from an early stage that the arms deal wasn’t legal. Holck’s gold smuggling and use of fake passports – police found two fake passports in his home in 2011 and he is still known in India as Kim Davy, a New Zealand alias he used at the time – demonstrates his relaxed attitude to the law.

While this may be, the documentary demonstrates that the arms drop took place with the full knowledge of both Indian and British intelligence agencies. Bleach’s trial was also riddled with irregularities. A British police officer that Bleach had been communicating with admitted to illegally tampering with evidence in the trial, erasing a section in notes that referenced MI5’s involvement. Six of the prosecution’s witnesses were also convicted of perjury, but he was still given a life sentence.

The actual extent of government involvement in the arms drop is hard to pin down. British, Danish and Indian intelligence agencies refused to cooperate with Kofoed in the making of the documentary. An Interpol report about the arms drop remains classified, though its author, Christer Brannerud, now a superintendent in the Stockholm Police, confirmed that the documentary did not veer from the truth.

“[The film] is a well done story presented in a correct way and I could not see any parts that I was not familiar with while I was still working on the case,” Brannerud wrote in an email to the documentary’s producers.

Human rights lose to trade
On one level, Lidegaard’s position is reasonable. Holck committed a criminal act in India and ought to stand trial. But what was noticeably absent was from his statement in BT was a call for India to ratify the UN Convention on Torture, which it signed in 1997. If India improved prison conditions, the Danish courts would allow the extradition of a Danish citizen outside the EU, as it did in 2009 when Camilla Broe was delivered to the US to face drug-smuggling charges.

Challenged on this point, Lidegaard said that Denmark recently launched an initiative together with Chile, Ghana and Indonesia to secure a universal ratification and implementation of the convention within ten years.

“Denmark believes that all countries should ratify the Convention against Torture, including India,” Lidegaard wrote in an email. “As the world’s biggest democracy, we would welcome India’s ratification.”

While this may be, it’s impossible not to speculate that Denmark’s interest in winning back lost trade with India plays a role in the government’s eagerness to deliver Holck. Lidegaard may also be keen to retain the trade relationships that already exist after Mahendra Modi was elected India’s prime minister in May.

Denmark has a special relationship with Modi, who was diplomatically isolated in 2002 after failing to intervene in riots that killed 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat, shortly after his election as its chief minister. Denmark was a among a few EU countries to reach out to Modi in 2008 and since then Danish multinationals Rockwool, A.P. Moller-Mærsk and Danfoss set up operations in Gujarat, which is one of India’s most prosperous states. With Modi now in power, the Holck case remains a sticking point in Denmark’s special, and profitable, relationship with India.

Modi has never faced charges for the 2002 riots, but human-rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticised Denmark’s decision to work with Modi and have accused the government of turning a blind eye.

Challenge to state power
Holck’s extradition battle is more than a story of one man’s personal struggle to gain security over his future. It’s an existential conflict between the individual and the state, which clouds our understanding of justice. Nation-states control the right to exercise power and are justifiably terrified of vigilantes who operate outside of their approval.

This is ultimately for the common good. But what if our governments don’t behave in our best interests, engage in subterfuge, permit the persecution of minorities, hide their questionably legal behaviour in secret reports and abandon their commitment to human rights for the sake of trade?

To Holck, at least, the answer is simple.

“When [former justice minister] Lars Barfod agreed to the extradition, he asked what Denmark would do if someone dropped weapons here. I answered that if Denmark were taken over by a Stalinistic regime, I certainly would hope that our Indian friends would drop Denmark off some weapons for their protection.”


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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