"This last year has been the hardest", says sister of north Cumbrian man held in Indian prison


The music of David Bowie will forever be associated with pain for one Cumbrian family, as the superstar's death coincided with the worst day of their lives.

On January 11, 2016 the world mourned the loss of the Starman singer, but for John Armstrong's family it was the day an Indian court convicted him of illegally possessing firearms.

The now 29-year-old, from Wigton, was sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment or hard labour. He has always vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

The former Paratrooper was one of six Britons facing the same conviction and sentence. They had all been working for the American anti-piracy firm Advanfort, when they were arrested in October 2013.

As his family this week reflected on one year since his conviction, John's sister Joanne Thomlinson has been speaking to campaigning school children.

"The year five and six pupils at Rosley School are doing an English project based on John," Joanne, from Blennerhasset, explained.

"They are learning about what's happened to him and then they are going to put some letter-writing skills and techniques into practice.

"The children will write to Government, using persuasive writing and language, and then they will write to John using friendly, informal language."

Joanne, 31, spoke to the pupils about her brother and the battle he and the other 34 crew members on board the Seaman Guard Ohio have faced since their arrest more than three years ago.

"This last year has been the hardest," she told the News & Star. "It felt like from 2013 we had been making positive steps - we got bail, then the charges were quashed and then we were fighting the trial.

"On January 11, 2016 it felt like we were straight back to the beginning, with the men in prison.

"I'm pleased we didn't know a year ago that the men would still be there."

The anniversary of their conviction this week was tough for Joanne and her parents Helen and John, and they were given a constant reminder as radio and television stations marked one year since Bowie's death.

"They were playing lots of Bowie songs over the weekend and up to the anniversary," Joanne recalled. "It makes me feel sick when I hear one of his songs, because it takes me back to a year ago and makes me relive all those feelings."

The 35 men launched an almost immediate appeal against their conviction, but that appeal was not heard and concluded until the end of November/ start of December.

And since then they have heard nothing.

Joanne continued: "We are still waiting for the outcome of that. We never imagined it would take so long.

"There's nothing we can do but wait - and knowing the conditions the men are forced to live in inside prison makes that even tougher.

"It meant that, in one way, Christmas was just an inconvenience to the men: it meant the court closed and it just extended the time they have to wait.

"The waiting is the hardest part for them. They've just been waiting, day after day, each day expecting a verdict. That's a really difficult state of mind to be in for weeks on end."

Neither the families nor the men have been given any indication when a verdict might be given.

In the meantime the six British families plan to continue their campaign to 'Free the SGO6' by increasing their pressure on the Government to meet with them.

"I feel like there has been a change since the Brexit vote," admitted Joanne.

"Hugo Swire (former Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) resigned and a new team came in.

"Obviously David Cameron and Hugo Swire had been involved from day one and they'd spoken to the company John worked for and worked with all the legal team. They knew a lot about the case and I think that has been lost.

"We're pushing for a meeting with Hugo Swire's replacement but there is no date set. To be honest I think they, like us, are just waiting to hear the verdict."

Joanne reassured people that John is as ok as can be expected, although the uncertainty continues to weigh on him.

She thanked everyone for their support - including the hundreds and hundreds of people who sent Christmas cards and gifts to the men - adding: "It is the support which keeps us, and the men, going, and we are very grateful."

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