It has been several years since Nick Dunn last tasted freedom. Held captive in a packed prison cell in India, each day he faces the threat of violence and a constant struggle to source food. With the weight shedding from his body, the former British soldier is trapped in a living nightmare. And the real kicker is that he’s totally innocent of any crime.
But Dunn isn’t alone; five of his fellow countrymen were also taken into custody at the same time as him. These people had all been employed as security guards aboard a ship called the MV Seaman Guard Ohio. However, they weren’t the only people sailing on the vessel.
The six Brits were actually part of a much larger crew working on board the ship when they were arrested in 2013. Also imprisoned at the time were 14 people from Estonia, 12 from India and three from Ukraine. But how was it that so many innocent people ended up in prison?
The six British men were hired to guard the ship from potential Somali pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean. And with their previous experience as soldiers, they were perhaps the ideal people for the job. But they likely never considered that their greatest enemy would actually prove to be the Indian legal system.
In Nick Dunn’s case specifically, he had been in some tough spots before. After all, the native of Ashington, England, was once a member of the Parachute Regiment in the British Army. This line of work had taken him around the world to countries like Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq. Such experiences, you might imagine, would mean that he’d developed a calm composure in stressful situations.
But all of Dunn’s past challenges likely paled in comparison to what awaited as he boarded the MV Seaman Guard Ohio. According to the BBC, he arrived on the ship in October 2013 somewhere along the coast of Sri Lanka. And Dunn was about to embark on a journey that would change his life forever.
Six days after Dunn had set foot on the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, the vessel was being docked into the port of Tuticorin by the Indian authorities. Then, on October 18 all of the people who’d been aboard were incarcerated.
Speaking about his ordeal to Pathfinder magazine in April 2018, Dunn recalled, “We docked and suddenly it was chaos. There [were] so many people everywhere. Police, maritime organizations, even the media. Everyone and their dog tried to board our vessel. At one point, a barrier went up to stop people coming on board or we would have capsized.”
Dunn and his colleagues were subsequently charged with possessing unlicensed guns. But the men claimed that they had obtained the appropriate licenses from the U.K. government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – something which the Indian authorities later confirmed. Nevertheless, at this stage the men were sent to prison in the city of Chennai.
As the British men – who became known as the Chennai Six – wilted away in prison, a glimmer of hope emerged in April 2014. That month, the charges being held against the men were defeated after it was conceded that the guns had been obtained legally and that they were being used for anti-piracy reasons. This positive development, however, ultimately came to nothing; the Indian authorities challenged this finding, and the prisoners were forced to remain in jail.
Dunn’s recollections of this time were published in the News Post Leader in March 2020. As he put it, “There was a lot of uncertainty in that period. And the fact that the authorities lodged the appeal on day 88 out of the 90 they had available made it even more of a nightmare.”
Meanwhile, legal representatives of the Chennai Six sought to resolve the issue and get them home. But the cogs of the legal system in India were moving incredibly slowly. In fact, days in court which should have been spent arguing the men’s cases were allegedly hampered by a prosecutor – and even a judge – not showing up.
David Cameron was the British Prime Minister when the men were arrested. The PM and his cabinet were aware of the situation and apparently even brought it up to the Indian leader Narendra Modi. Yet, it seems, progress at the higher ends of government was minimal, and it was consequently left to the prisoners’ loved ones to campaign for their release.
Dunn’s sister Lisa was extremely active in trying to secure her sibling’s release. And in 2016 – two years after they’d last met – she was permitted to travel to India to visit Dunn. The sibling recalled this moment to the ITV News Tyne Tees TV program shortly after she’d been to see him.
As Lisa explained, “[Dunn] was so composed and calm; he really kept it together. He ate a massive piece of cake and we sang happy birthday – it was amazing. Seeing him after all this time was extremely emotional, but it’s given me fire in my belly. There’s no way he’s going to spend the next five years in prison. We are all focused and determined.”
Lisa then discussed the ongoing campaign and the difficulties they faced. She went on, “We’re meeting with the lawyers at the prison this Thursday to build the case to fight the refused bail. This is giving all the British guys a focus. But it’s so hard communicating, getting letters in and out of the prison.”
All the while, though, the Chennai Six remained wrongly incarcerated. But the campaign did bear some fruit. A petition signed by some 130,000 individuals demanding the Indian authorities grant the men bail was submitted to the British government. And this ultimately led to the prisoners being permitted to spend some time in more comfortable settings such as hostels and hotels.
However, these moments of relative respite were short-lived, as the crew of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio were also held in terrible conditions in jail. At times, four of them would be in a single cell. But on other occasions, there could be as many as 20. And all of this was within a prison environment also housing rapists and murderers.
From the very first day of their incarceration, the Chennai Six had targets on their backs, according to the BBC. Rocks were tossed at the men, and they were forced to move about in groups. This, it was hoped, would deter other prisoners from attacking them. But conflict could not always be avoided.
As Dunn recalled in a book detailing his experiences, he and his British colleagues were attacked by a group wielding chairs and crutches while on their way to visit the prison doctor. He wrote in Surviving Hell, “Punches were thrown, prisoners were grappling with each other, and a number of bodies hit the ground. It was complete pandemonium all around, with bodies being thrown about and fists flying.”
By the end of the brawl, however, the British men had ultimately come on top. After all, they were large former soldiers who’d been specially trained in security. Dunn explained in his book that the attackers “must have looked at this group of big blokes, and the damage we had caused and, suddenly, they weren’t so keen on a scrap.”
But even though the Chennai Six had saved themselves from further attacks by the other inmates, they still struggled amid the conditions in the prison. The beds upon which the Brits slept consisted of flimsy mattresses on the ground, and their toilet was simply a pit. Dunn went on, “The conditions were bleak, basic and dirty. Every day was like Groundhog Day.”
Any means of distraction from their grim reality was left to the men themselves. But they were quite resourceful in this respect, even utilizing things they found around the jail to create work-out equipment. For example, they took a metal rod and some heavy rocks and crafted lifting weights.
Writing in Surviving Hell, Dunn remarked, “The guards would always dismantle our makeshift gym, but every time they did, we rebuilt it again. In the end, we pleaded with them to leave our equipment alone. Surely, we said, they could recognize we were setting a good example to other prisoners.”
In September 2017 Dunn’s sister Lisa decided to partake in a charity run to raise funds for legal fees. At this same time, Dunn himself ran a half-marathon in prison. In extremely hot weather conditions, the former soldier ran around the jail’s yard some 27 times.
Dunn wasn’t alone on his prison run, however. Some of the other British prisoners joined him, while one of the others helped by getting their hands on a few oranges. These, of course, helped keep the runners’ energy levels up. This was itself an impressive feat, as food was a tough commodity to come by inside the jail.
And as difficult as it was to stay nourished, it was just as hard to stay hygienic. To wash themselves, the prisoners used an aged pipe connected to a tap. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a step up from using a simple bucket of water. Dunn told the BBC, “We were forever trying to make up for losing the comforts we took for granted when we were back home.”
Dunn continued, “We just did what we had to do to make our lives a bit easier with what we had available, which wasn’t a lot. You’ve got to keep on top of your hygiene. In that situation it’s so easy to fall ill because it’s just not a clean place.”
Apparently, the Chennai Six got by in prison by exchanging things like cigarettes. This way, they could get their hands on food – or they would simply scavenge. Dunn told the BBC, “Every day in that cookhouse was a battle. We were coming to blows just to get hold of a pan, and we would have to kick off to make sure we had enough food to survive.”
And as the men tried to survive in captivity, their loved ones worked to get them free. Lisa Dunn, for one, was vocal in trying to get the British government to help her brother. But the court appeal against the imprisonment continued to progress very slowly, and hope was possibly beginning to wane.
As time dragged on, Dunn started to suspect that one of the prisoners would have to die before sufficient attention would be given to their case. Disturbingly, this almost proved to be exactly what happened. In the fall of 2017 the Ukrainian captain of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio became gravely sick.
Dunn recalled in his book, “As I predicted, suddenly, the sluggish judicial system started to take notice of our case again. The death or serious illness of one of our number while we were in an Indian prison would be a serious embarrassment to the authorities.”
Things, at long last, now started to move quickly. And in November 2017 the prisoners received the news that they’d been dreaming of for four whole years: the men were going to be released. Remembering the moment that he learned this, Dunn wrote, “My knees just crumpled. I was exploding inside.”
The men were set free 24 hours later and made it back to the United Kingdom six days after that. As you might imagine, their loved ones were absolutely ecstatic by the return of the former soldiers. In fact, as Dunn passed through the airport in the English city of Newcastle upon Tyne, complete strangers also expressed their support.
As Dunn recalled to Pathfinder, “Stepping off the flight in Newcastle, I stopped and I could smell crisp clean air, then I knew I was safely home. Newcastle Airport were fantastic. The staff were clapping their hands as I came off the flight. My family and friends were at the other side of security waiting for me. It was like winning the lottery ten times over.”
After all those years of imprisonment, Dunn now had to learn how to live normally again. And this wasn’t without its challenges. There were ordinary aspects of life which he’d slipped out of touch with. According to the BBC, he actually had to seek his brother’s help in operating a washing machine.
Dunn told the British broadcaster, “I remember putting my first load of washing in and having to ring my brother to ask him how to use the machine. After spending four years using a bucket and hands to wash your clothes, you forget these little things that you take for granted.”
Speaking to Pathfinder about his return back to normal life, Dunn said, “Now I have been home over a year. It has been a transitional time… almost like leaving the army again. The world had changed over those four years and I am still trying to play catch up. My family have been amazing in helping me through it, I also have a psychologist helping me, too.”
It might come as a surprise to learn that Dunn has actually continued his work as a security guard – but he does so in the U.K. rather than abroad. Despite the ordeal that he went through, he wants to continue on in the field and make use of his specialist training. After all, he survived for many years in extremely difficult circumstances, so he’s obviously cut out for stressful situations.
At the time of writing, three years have passed since Dunn’s release, and he’s just trying to get on with things. The Ashington native told the BBC, “Things have changed in my life after going through what I went through. I take each day as it comes now. There are days when I can feel a bit down and out, but I know I’ve been through a lot worse.”