Arrested US paraglider pilots to be released on bail but no court date set
Brad Sander and Eric Reed, the two US paraglider pilots arrested in Sikkim for not having their paperwork in order, expect to be released on bail on Monday 21 March.
Bail was set at 100,000 rupees, about €1,600 / $2,200, however, there is no date yet set for a court appearance.
“The trial will hopefully happen this week, but it might be a month,” said Brad. “At this point things are still up in the air.”
Speaking by phone from Uttarey, just across the border from Nepal in north India, where they are being held in a police barracks, Brad said: “We were granted bail and that starts tomorrow. But the stipulations right now are that they’ll keep the gliders but we can’t leave Sikkim.”
Brad and Eric were on the latest leg of the Himalayan Odyssey expedition, an ambitious attempt to paraglide across the length of the Himalaya, when they were arrested in Sikkim on 16 March for not having their paperwork in order.
The pilots had flown across the border from Nepal and into Sikkim, India, on 14 March, after being assured that they had the go-ahead from local police and border guards for the flight. They planned to have the local Sikkim permit issued on arrival in Uttarey, the first town of note in the state.
After camping one night in Sikkim they entered Uttarey on 15 March. There, they presented themselves and their passports to the local police station.
“At that point we didn’t have our Sikkim permits, just our passport with our Indian visa,” said Brad. The Sikkim permit is needed on top of a valid India visa.
Eric explained that they also had a letter from the Nepal side allowing the flight to happen: “They were satisfied with [our paperwork] at the time and returned it to us.”
With no problem from the local police station in Uttarey, the next day the pair travelled to a nearby little-used paragliding site and made a demonstration flight for some Uttarey tourist operators. But on their return to Uttarey they were arrested.
Eric said: “In the afternoon we returned back up-valley to Uttarey, We were drinking tea with our hosts in a restaurant around 100 meters from the police post to which we’d reported the day before.
“Then, officers from that post politely asked us to return to the post for further questions. We complied with their request and have been in their custody since.”
He added that they had been treated “comfortably and respectfully” at all times.
“We thought that [our permits] were arranged,” Brad said. “The local police and the local people in the area were welcoming to us.”
He added, “Basically, this was a misunderstanding … 95% of people we are talking to don’t think we should be prosecuted.”
Since the arrest, the two pilots plus GK Rai and Raju Rai – two local businessmen who had helped to arrange the border crossing – have been held in the local police barracks. The pair have access to their phones and are being well treated, they say, although their passports and paragliders have been confiscated. (An earlier report on XCmag.com that said the pilots could move freely around the town was incorrect.)
The US embassy in New Delhi is aware of their situation and is monitoring developments.
Despite the uncertainty over a court date, Brad was hopeful that the issue could be resolved soon. “The word I’m getting from other people is that this will be wrapped up in a couple of days. [But] they have to go through due process … I think they’re going to take it to trial.”
He added: “It just genuinely seems like a tremendous waste of time for everybody … There was no malicious intent. Some of the police around us would be happy for it just to be let go.”
He added, “Everybody who has interviewed us has gone, Oh, well, this is definitely not a security threat. But because it was a new thing and by paraglider, that’s why it has brought so much attention.”
Eric said he was staying positive about the situation, and hoped it could be resolved as soon as possible.
His main concern was to address inaccuracies that have been reported, particularly a report that said the pair had been apprehended in a local market, which he felt gave the impression they were trying to evade the police.
“We’ve been completely transparent about how and where we sought to cross the border and sincere in our attempt to obtain all required documentation,” he said.
“Prior to crossing we had good reason to believe that we were in full compliance with the requirements for entering both India and Sikkim, and that the border patrol and Indian police had been notified and had approved of our crossing the border into India, whether by foot or by paraglider.”
He added, “The characterisation that the police apprehended us is inaccurate.”
“None of our actions or movements after entering India can reasonably be seen as evasive or anything less than open and helpful with the police.”
Locally, the pair have made headlines and have become minor celebrities. While some news reports have argued that the pilots should feel the full force of the law, others have said the reaction of the police has been over the top.
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