by Sandeep Sahu
Bhubaneswar, Oct 24:
It is hard to believe. But in the final analysis, it was the limitation of the X-Ray scanner available at the Bjiu Patnaik airport in Bhubaneswar, which picked up something that the much more advanced versions installed at the Houston airport in the US or the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi failed to do: the eight live .22 mm bullets William Michael Hurtubise, 26, was carrying in his baggage.
“It was a large bag, about 30 kg or so, and it passed through the baggage scanner with thousands of other bags without being detected. But here at the Bhubaneswar airport, I had to disassemble the bag and take out the belongings one by one since the X-Ray machine here is not large enough to scan it in one piece,” Hurtubise told OST in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
Asked if he was aware of the bullets in his baggage, he said he wasn’t. “If I was aware, I would not have volunteered to take out the belongings one by one, would I? That would be stupid, wouldn’t it?” he retorted. He claimed he simply forgot to take out the bullets before boarding the plane.
“In any case, it is not a crime to carry live ammunition in your cabin luggage in the US. In fact, you can carry as much as 11 pounds (about 5 kg) of it as long as you don’t put it in your hand baggage,” he pointed out. Even if the security personnel at the Houston airport had detected it, they would not have stopped him from going ahead since it is perfectly legal to carry live ammunition in the checked baggage in the US, he claimed.
Despite the nightmarish experience of spending more than a month in an Indian jail, this mechanical engineer who describes himself a as ‘a victim of circumstances’, shows, rather surprisingly, no signs of any bitterness.
“Obviously, it has not been the greatest of experiences, certainly not something that I would have chosen for myself. But I did not have a choice and made the best I could of the situation,” Hurtubise said.
Talking about his experience at the Jharpada jail here, the man who specialises in oil drilling operations, said; “All the people in the jail were very helpful and took good care of me. I faced no trouble and used my time in the jail reading Indian newspapers and magazines, which gave me a much better idea about how things work in this country.”
Questioned about the way the law enforcement machinery treated him, Hurtubise would not go beyond terming it ‘disappointing’. “The misinformation given to me in the early stages certainly did not help,” he said.
Hurtubise revealed to OST that he spent his 26th birthday on September 30, 12 days after his arrest, in the Jharpada jail. Though the news of his arrest had already been conveyed to his parents back home in Houston by the American embassy, he was able to talk to them only after coming out of jail on Tuesday, he said.
The US oil engineer, employed with Korean oil exploration company STH, clarified that he was on his way to an off-shore oil well in the Bay of Bengal and not to Paradip as the media had reported widely. The services of his company were commissioned by the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), the PSU giant owned by the Government of India, for oil exploration work in the Bay of Bengal, he said.
Though he refused to be pinned down to a ‘timeframe’, Hurtubise said he was hopeful that he would be back in his country in the none-too-distant future.
Asked if his arrest and incarceration would affect his job and career, he said ‘ it will, but temporarily’.
What finally secured bail for Hurtubiese after two rejections was the provisions of the Indian Ordnance Factory rules, according to which .22 mm bore bullets would not fit into any Indian gun or pistol and are only used in sporting activities, his lawyer Sarat Gajendra told OST.
“The provisions clearly state that they are not ‘bullets’ in the conventional sense of the term and cannot be used to kill someone. In any case, he was not carrying a gun,” he pointed out.
Like his client, Gajendra is optimistic about his chances of being acquitted soon.
“I am not just hopeful, but confident that he would be released with his honour and dignity intact,” he said.
Hurtubise has already paid heavily for an act nothing more sinister than plain forgetfulness. But it is not a lesson that he is going to forget in a hurry.