Now reunited with his family, the 37-year-old former paratrooper sits amid the plushly upholstered luxury of a Scottish hotel
Playfully ruffling his young son’s curly hair, Billy Irving can hardly contain his elation – and no wonder.
Now reunited with his family, the 37-year-old former paratrooper sits amid the plushly upholstered luxury of a Scottish hotel – a far cry from the killers, rapists, rats, stench and disease of the filthy Indian prison where, for the past four years, he has been confined.
Perhaps the greatest privation of all was finding himself more than 5,000 miles from 33-month-old William, the son he had seen only three times before in his life – until now.
On Wednesday, Billy, one of the so-called Chennai Six, arrived back home a free man after escaping a tortuous legal nightmare: wrongly condemned, along with five other former British servicemen, for possessing illegal firearms on a ship in Indian waters.
The sense of relief is overwhelming, yet it is tempered with sorrow that he has been unable to be a father to his young boy.
Billy has missed an irreplaceable part of William’s childhood. And mixed in with these competing emotions is something else: cold fury at the behaviour of the Foreign Office, which he believes not only failed to help, but whose incompetence, he says, condemned him to incarceration in a ‘hell-hole’ prison in the southern Indian city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras.
It is, he says, a betrayal by the country he has been proud to serve.
Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, an emotional Billy, a former Corporal in the Parachute Regiment who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, says: ‘I still can’t believe it’s finally over. It has been an unbelievable nightmare. They robbed me of seeing my son born and growing up.
‘To finally smell fresh air and feel the cold rain on my face is the most fantastic feeling in the world.
‘Now I just want to get to know my son, focus on being a proper father to him, and spend time with my family.’
It was thanks to the relentless campaigning by Billy’s fiancee, Yvonne MacHugh, 29, that he and his former colleagues were suddenly released a fortnight ago after being cleared of all charges against them.
Family and friends await the arrival of Billy Irving from Connel, Argyll, one of the so-called Chennai Six, at Glasgow Airport
Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, an emotional Billy, a former Corporal in the Parachute Regiment who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, says: ‘I still can’t believe it’s finally over.’ Pictured: Billy in Glasgow Airport after his release
The entire crew, including Estonian, Ukranian and Indian nationals, were arrested on charges of possessing illegal weapons. Pictured: Billy after his release
FIGHT FOR JUSTICE: How The Mail on Sunday reported a heartbreaking plea by Billy Irving’s fiancee in January 2016
Sitting by his side in the Scottish hotel, Yvonne savages former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as ‘useless’ and denounces Hammond’s successor Boris Johnson, who in the past few days claimed the Foreign Office had been working ‘unstintingly’ behind the scenes.
‘For Boris Johnson to hint that he had some part in their return is the height of hypocrisy,’ she says. ‘I’ve written to him a number of times asking for a meeting and never had a reply. How dare he.’
Without Yvonne and the families of the other men, the six would still be languishing among the 3,000 inmates behind the 20ft concrete walls of the vast Puzhal Central high-security jail. There, in ragged prison clothes, with long hair and unkempt beards, they were forced to share an airless 30ft square cell with a hole in the floor for a toilet. The food came from a rat-infested storeroom.
BRAVE: Billy Irving manages to smile in his ‘hell-hole’ Indian jail
Now, with his hair and beard neatly trimmed, Billy cradles his little son while recalling the turmoil of the past four years.
The drama began with an altogether unremarkable voyage, just one of many for Billy and his colleagues – former British soldiers Nick Dunn, John Armstrong, Nicholas Simpson, Ray Tindall and Paul Towers – which prompted a nightmare they could never have imagined.
The men, working for a US maritime security firm, were on the MV Seaman Guard Ohio in October 2013, heading through the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, from where Billy was due to fly home for a month’s leave. They were working legitimately for the American maritime security firm AdvanFort, escorting commercial freighters through dangerous waters – in this case, an area of the Indian Ocean infested with Somali pirates. They had the relevant permits and paperwork, issued by the British Government.
Billy says: ‘With our military backgrounds, we took our responsibilities very seriously.
‘If a pirate vessel got within 500 metres of a ship we were escorting, we would zig-zag the ship to create choppier conditions or use water hoses as deterrents. If that failed, we would hold our weapons up to show we were armed.’
In truth, Billy had become rather bored with his job, his thoughts focused on reuniting with Yvonne.
The crew maintain their course was steady, that they never left international waters.
But then disaster struck. The Indian coastguard boarded the vessel, claiming it had strayed 1.2 nautical miles into their territory.
(From left) Mr Simpson, Paul Towers, 52, Mr Tindall and Billy Irving were all working for US marine company AdvanFort when they were arrested in 2013
The entire crew, including Estonian, Ukranian and Indian nationals, were arrested on charges of possessing illegal weapons – there were 35 assault rifles and 5,000 rounds of ammunition in the ship’s armoury – and they were portrayed as foreign spies sent to blow up power stations, or of being pirate-hunter mercenaries.
‘We had no idea what was going on,’ says Billy, who had worked for AdvanFort for only four months, having left the Army in 2008 after ten years’ service. ‘We were told to sign papers, which we couldn’t read because they were written in Tamil, or they would call us terrorists. We were offered no legal representation. We honestly thought it was all a dreadful mistake and that once someone realised the weapons had proper certificates we’d get an apology and be on our way.’
For him, one bizarre episode sums up the conduct of the case against them. The crew were taken to court, only to find it closed. They were then lined up in a garden outside a judge’s house to be paraded in front of local media, where the judge shouted something at them in Tamil.
They were then carted back to prison, where they spent six months in horrendous conditions – four men to a mosquito-infested concrete cell. There were only two clean sheets but no beds, no clean water and no toilet paper. Billy contracted dysentery and lost three stone.
‘At times, our daily food ration was one boiled potato, half an onion and a chapatti.
‘We complained about the water, which wasn’t fit for drinking. There were little red worms floating in it. It was disgusting. I was stinking – I felt humiliated.’
Finally, with paperwork submitted to the court showing there was no case to answer, the crew were released in June 2014. However, they were unable to leave the country because their passports had been confiscated pending an appeal.
It is then that Billy and Yvonne feel the Foreign Office made their worst mistake.
The British High Commission could have demanded the men’s passports back or issued new travel documents. Instead it did nothing – and the day before the 90-day appeal period elapsed, the Indian authorities successfully appealed against their acquittal, which meant the group faced a trial.
Pleas to the Foreign Office fell on deaf ears: ‘They kept telling us they couldn’t interfere in the judicial process. But there was no judicial process being followed.’
Yvonne flew out to India and spent two months with Billy during his time in legal limbo, later discovering she was pregnant. Billy was ‘over the moon’.
Meeting William when he was three months old, when Yvonne brought him to India, was the inspiration he desperately needed.
‘I can’t describe the feelings of meeting him for the first time – it gave me the hope to carry on,’ he says.
For the next 18 months the Chennai Six were forced to live off charitable donations from the UK while they fought to clear their names. One of their biggest supporters was Captain Richard Phillips – played by actor Tom Hanks in the Hollywood blockbuster Captain Phillips, which tells the real-life story of Somali pirates boarding his own ship in 2009.
Then, in January 2016, the men were convicted and sentenced to five years in a high-security prison.
‘There was rat and cat urine and faeces on the floor where our food was kept,’ Billy recalls. ‘Much of the food was rotten but we had to eat it anyway.
‘The high temperatures were suffocating. The area where we cooked our food was rancid. People would spit there, or use it to wash and shower. Spilled food wasn’t cleaned up. I never became resigned to it. I never gave up fighting to improve our conditions.’
He adds: ‘The Foreign Office were a joke. On their first visit to the prison, the FO staff member gave us an information pack on prisoners abroad, then left.’
Back in Britain, Yvonne found the FO similarly unco-operative: ‘I found Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to be next to useless and uninterested at best, though [FO Minister] Hugo Swire did engage with us and met the families, for which we were very grateful. He also went to the prison during a visit to India.
‘But I will never forgive the FO. At times, their lack of interest just made everything worse. They put business ventures before lives. They complicated situations and moved goalposts. They would offer to help, then didn’t follow up. They’ve never said, “Sorry, we messed up.”
‘Billy and the other men would have been free two years ago if the FO had been truly there for us.’
Billy says: ‘I served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, putting my life on the line. I don’t ever regret it and was proud to do so. But I feel disgusted and betrayed that my Government doesn’t fight for its citizens in the face of injustice and breaches of basic human rights. The British people have been fantastic, sending us letters of support and food parcels. But the Government let us down badly – I can never forgive them.’
Finally, last month, the High Court in Chennai found the men not guilty of the weapons charges and allowed them to apply for their passports to be returned.
Yvonne says: ‘It’s an unimaginable Christmas present, finally having Billy back home with us – sometimes it was hard to ever imagine this day coming.
‘I’m not sure we will ever be a normal family after this, but we just want to make sure that we bring William up properly as a couple and make the most of the time we now have together.’
The couple hope to marry in February and Billy has no plans to return to security work. ‘I want a safe nine to five job,’ he says. ‘Something like a postman would do me fine. I don’t think I could ever put my family through that again.’
The Foreign Office said: ‘The Government was delighted that the men were released and the Foreign Secretary also paid tribute to those who campaigned for them.
‘The Foreign Office worked tirelessly behind the scenes to reunite these men with their families.
‘This included lobbying on their behalf, visiting them in prison, updating their families and maintaining close contact with their legal team.’