By Tom Jordan
On June 17, long-time peace activists Michael Randall and Pat Pottle will be tried for helping famous double agent George Blake escape from a British prison in 1966. Randall and Pottle admit they did it but insist that they committed no crime.
George Blake was active in the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II. After the war, he worked for British intelligence and was later sent to Seoul during the Korean War, where he was arrested during an advance by North Korean troops.
He was released when the war ended and resumed work for British intelligence. However, he was secretly working for the Soviet government and convincing other Western agents to do the same.
Blake insists he never "went over" and that he was always anti-fascist; it was the British and other Western governments which had gone over to the side of the fascists after the war.
In 1961 he was uncovered, tried secretly by the British authorities and sentenced to 42 years' jail — the longest sentence ever passed at that time. In prison he met Randall and Pottle, who had been jailed for organising protests against United States military bases in Britain.
"We did not have any sympathy with espionage of either side", Randall explained to me in a recent telephone conversation. "But we felt it was totally hypocritical to send him down for 42 years when his own job for British intelligence was to try to persuade people working for Soviet intelligence and Soviet and East European military people to do exactly what he finally decided to do — pass information to the other side.
"We thought it was a totally inhuman sentence and that it was really twisting the law, because parliament had laid down a maximum of 14 years' imprisonment [for Blake's offence], but instead of charging him on one count, they charged him on five counts and made three sentences run consecutively".
When Blake escaped from a high security prison in 1966, the British papers reported that the "Russians" had spirited him out with a helicopter and a submarine, said Randall. In reality, Blake's escape was engineered by Randall, Potter (then out of jail) and a third person with makeshift methods. They obtained an old car and threw a rope ladder over the wall. Blake had cut through the bars on the window of his cell and crossed the wall, but then fell and broke his arm.
The full story of the escape can be read in the book The Escape of George Blake by Randall and Pottle (Harrap 1989).
"We were doing it absolutely on a shoestring. When we actually got him out of prison, we hadn't even raised the money to get him any further. But we just improvised. He stayed at Pat Pottle's house until my wife, myself together with our two young children drove him to East
"We adapted a campervan and hid him behind a set of drawers and smuggled him across the borders into East Germany."
In 1987, the Sunday Times named Randall and Pottle as the people responsible for Blake's escape, and rumours about how it was done began to fly around. The only way to deal with this, they thought, was to put the record straight. So they wrote The Escape of George Blake.
"Within a week of its publication, we were arrested", explained Randall, although he believes that British intelligence knew they had done it since the early 1970s but were too embarrassed to admit that two hippies and an apolitical former prisoner could have organised the escape.
"Up to that time, we hadn't seen or been in touch with Blake. But in February last year we went over with our lawyers to see him in Moscow."
Blake is extremely well, said Randall. "Very fit. Does his yoga, which he used to do in prison as well. And he's got a wife and son who's now at university ... He also works at an institute doing peace research and editing a yearbook."
Randall believes that the British authorities have also been prompted to take him and Pottle to court (the third person involved in the escape died a few years ago) because extreme right-wing groups and conservative MPs threatened to take out a public prosecution against them if the authorities did not.
But in general, says Randall, the public has been sympathetic to them. "People who aren't political at all say this is crazy after all these years, especially when the whole situation between East and West has now changed so radically."
They face three charges: helping a prisoner escape and two conspiracy charges. The first carries a maximum sentence of five years and the conspiracy charges carry two years each. Randall and Potter plan to argue that what they did was the "right thing to do" and that a jury should decide whether or not this constitutes a crime.
"The authorities have also taken out what they call charging orders on our homes, which means that if we are convicted they can seize the houses and sell them."
Randall is currently completing a book on what happened in Eastern Europe and its significance for European security.