Arrested overseas and jailed for a crime their families say they didn’t commit - in an exclusive interview with Change.org's Nadia Gilani, Yvonne Mchugh tells why she’s still fighting for justice for her partner and how every signature has made a difference.
Standing outside Downing Street’s famous black door, Yvonne Mchugh is unfazed by its grandeur and more defiant than ever. She’s been here before and says she’ll return with her petition ‘as many times as it takes’ until her partner is allowed home.
In just over two years, the 27-year-old has gained the support of almost 400,000 people rooting for her from all over the UK. Speaking after handing-in the petition, Yvonne said: ‘Every single signature has helped get us where we are today. From people commenting on the petition to getting in touch with me directly - it’s been a lifeline that has kept me going.
‘This level of support has really forced MPs to take notice and join our campaign. The government has got to act when it knows this many people are angry about the situation.’
Yvonne’s partner Billy Irving, 35 and five other former soldiers were sentenced to five years in prison in January. They were convicted of weapons charges after being detained while working as security guards on ships to combat the threat of pirates.
Indian authorities boarded their ship and arrested them in 2013. After charges were quashed then reinstated, they were convicted and jailed in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state.
On Thursday July 7, which marked 1,000 days since the men were jailed, their families met cross-party MPs at a Parliamentary lobby and handed over more than 372,000 signatures at Downing Street.
Yvonne who lives in Glasgow said: ‘I feel more positive than I have done for a long time. ‘Handing in such a huge petition was just phenomenal and gave us the boost we all needed knowing we’re not alone and people are behind us.’
Yvonne is far from alone. She’s been campaigning tirelessly for more than two years alongside other families and now a cross-party group of MPs has been set up to call on the UK government to intervene.
MP Kirsten Oswald, chairwoman of the group, hosted the lobby ahead of Thursday’s petition delivery attended by families, MPs, seafaring charities and support groups to discuss the case.
Speaking after the meeting Ms Oswald said: ‘I’m pleased that we can now move forward with a greater number of MPs who are supportive of this cause. It’s really important that we all bring pressure on this to get these men back home where they belong.’
Yvonne who travelled to India for 10 days on Sunday (July 10) will get a chance to see Billy for the first time in six months since he was convicted.
The Tamil Nadu Prison Department has granted her and their 16-month-old son William three visits with Billy during her trip, which could last up to three hours or as little as just 30 minutes ‘depending on how they’re feeling on the day.’
She said: ‘I cannot wait to see Billy again, and I’m going to tell all the men that they’re not forgotten. We’ve been down to Parliament, we’ve been to Downing Street so we’re doing all we can and we’ll make sure the British government does act.’
The mum-of-one told of how difficult it has been raising William alone while his dad is behind bars.
She said: ‘It’s been extremely hard without Billy I’ve had to go through my whole pregnancy all on my own and bring our child up. ‘Billy hasn’t chosen to leave me alone looking after our son. He’s had that choice taken from him, he would love nothing more than to be there for us both.
‘Out of everything that's been thrown at Billy the past 1000 days that's the one thing that hurts him the most.
‘Every night I show William a picture of his dad and get him to kiss him, he knows who Billy is, but he has no idea what a dad is because he’s never had one.’
Thursday’s petition delivery follows a previous hand-in Yvonne and her supporters made shortly after she launched the campaign - it now has more than double the original number of signatures.
She said: ‘We wanted to do it again to raise the profile of the case to make sure we get the British media, the public and most importantly the UK government behind us to release the men. ‘They shouldn’t be in there. They know they're innocent, we know they’re innocent - we just need to get them home.
‘We’ll continue fighting and campaigning. We’ll hand in the petition as many times as it takes to bring our boys home. We’ll never give up.’
The six ex-soldiers jailed in India are:
- Nick Dunn, from Ashington, Northumberland
- Billy Irving, from Connel, Argyll
- Ray Tindall, from Chester
- Paul Towers, from Pocklington, East Riding of Yorkshire
- John Armstrong, from Wigton, Cumbria
- Nicholas Simpson, from Catterick, North Yorkshire
For more information about this petition go to change.org/6soldiers or email firstname.lastname@example.org