Mumbai: Wrongly convicted Thane man set free after spending 28 months in Greek jail

Feb 12, 2018, 08:26 IST | Suraj Ojha and Hajra Bi

Kalpesh Shinde, 24, reunites with family after being acquitted of charges of running weapons for ISIS, for which he spent 28 months in an Athens prison

Kalpesh Shinde has an emotional reunion with his mother, Pallavi, at Mumbai airport. Pics/Atul Kamble
Kalpesh Shinde has an emotional reunion with his mother, Pallavi, at Mumbai airport. Pics/Atul Kamble

When Kalpesh Shinde, 24, set off on his very first journey as a sailor, it was with dreams of a life of freedom on the high seas. Instead, what he got was a sea of tears, as he languished in a Greece jail for 28 months, after being falsely accused of smuggling weapons for ISIS. After more than two years of fighting for justice, the nightmare finally ended yesterday, as Shinde walked out of Mumbai airport a free man, and was reunited with his family.

Kalpesh Shinde with his dad Rajendra
Kalpesh Shinde with his dad Rajendra

A teary-eyed Kalpesh strode out of the arrivals gate of the airport and walked straight into the arms of his anxious parents, Rajendra and Pallavi. Even as he clung to them, he recounted the nightmarish ordeal he suffered in Greece over the last couple of years. He told mid-day, "I would never wish such horror on anyone. Life in jail was as bad as they show in the movies; I just want to forget about all the hardcore criminals there."

Kalpesh Shinde strode out of the arrivals gate of the airport and walked straight into the arms of his parents, Rajendra and Pallavi
Kalpesh Shinde strode out of the arrivals gate of the airport and walked straight into the arms of his parents, Rajendra and Pallavi

First time unlucky
Kalpesh, a Thane resident with a diploma in mechanical engineering, had always dreamt of life at sea. After a 16-month course, he got a job as a seafarer on the cargo ship, Haddad 1. On June 7, 2015, as he embarked on his maiden journey, Kalpesh bid farewell to his family, never imagining that it would be years before he would see them again.

The ship first sailed to Cyprus, and then to Libya, Egypt and Turkey, before finally returning to Libya. But before they could complete the journey, on August 29, 2015, the Greece Coast Guard raided the ship and detained the entire crew onboard. The ship was supposed to be carrying plastic furniture, but the officers found weapons in the onboard containers instead. They found 5 lakh rounds of ammunition onboard, along with 5,000 rifles. They also found 4,900 cartons of cigarettes.

The Coast Guard had acted on a tip-off from an informant, who had also told them that the arms were being trafficked to the terror outfit, ISIS, in Libya. Seven people were detained, including the captain of the ship. During their five days in police custody, Kalpesh and another Indian crewmember Jignesh Sundar Raj, 26, pleaded that they were innocent, but the authorities paid no mind. On October 3, 2015, they were locked up in Korydallos Jail, where they would remain for the next 28 months.

No voice or money
Kalpesh was accused of trafficking weapons to a terrorist organisation, and was convicted and sentenced to 15 years of rigorous punishment. Meanwhile, back in Thane, Kalpesh's family had broken down on hearing the heard dreadful news. Kalpesh's father Rajendra, and his uncle Rajesh Kadam turned to the Forward Seamen's Union of India (FSUI) for help and began knocking on the door of every possible government agency that could set Kalpesh free.

In March 2016, Kalpesh appealed against his conviction at a higher court, and with the help of the Indian government and the FSUI, he was finally proved innocent on February 5. The process was a long and uphill battle and one that cost the family dearly. Kalpesh was the family's main breadwinner, bringing in Rs 24,000 a month. With his income having dried up, the family had to rely on his father's humble earnings as a driver. They burned through most of their savings, spending approximately R10 lakh in their fight for justice.

Kalpesh's uncle recalled, "From the time he was arrested and convicted in 2015, we had a long fight until the court cleared Kalpesh and Jignesh of the charges. During this period, I visited Delhi many times to meet government officials. I also tried to speak to Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj over the phone. Unfortunately, she had been hospitalised, but she promised that the Indian Embassy would help us. FSUI also helped us in every possible way, and even arranged for three advocates to fight for us."

Kalpesh said, "I was proved innocent because I was innocent. It was a terrible experience, but since we are Indian, we were treated with respect in prison. The Indian Embassy was a great help, with the money they sent us, we would buy phone cards to stay in touch with our family."

Still wants to be a sailor
Despite the horrific ordeal, somehow Kalpesh's passion for the sea has still not dimmed. "I can never forget what happened to me, but this experience has not altered my passion to become a Merchant Navy officer. If my family grants me permission, I would want to join a Merchant Navy shipping company and sail into the sea again." At this point, his mother Pallavi cut in: "I would never want to send my son back to such a place where he had to go through such horrors."

A second later, though, she conceded, "We will respect Kalpesh's passion and happiness. We will collectively decide his future." For now, Kalpesh's family is just relieved that he is finally back. From the airport, they went straight to Siddhivinayak temple to give thanks, followed by a reunion with the extended family at Kalpesh's uncle's home in Worli. "We're happy. We're thinking of going on a vacation in April, somewhere outside Maharashtra," said his mother, beaming.

'Give them compensation'
Manoj Yadav, the general secretary of the Forward Seamen's Union of India (FSUI), said, "We are happy that our struggle of two-and-a-half years have paid off. We will continue to fight for the justice and security of our seafarers. But my question to the government is why did these boys get arrested for a crime they never committed? Kalpesh's family saw a major financial crisis during this fight, and Greece and Indian governments should compensate them."

28 - No. of months Kalpesh was jailed in Greece
15 - No. of years he was sentenced to serve
Rs 10 lakh - Family's approximate expenses in the fight for justice
5 Lakh - Rounds of ammunition found
5k - No. of rifles found on the ship
4.9k - No. of cigarette cartons found
15 - No. of years Kalpesh was sentenced to serve in jail
28 - No. of months he was jailed
24k - His monthly salary

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