Translation: Peter Van Geit is a local celebrity in Chennai, a city in India where he moved from Lokeren 25 years ago. With his non-profit organization Chennai Trekking Club, he organizes adventurous activities and treks, including in the Himalayas. The association is made up of volunteers, does charity work all over the region and today has about 40,000 members.
When a group of 19 hikers was surprised by a forest fire in March 2018, the Indian police found Peter responsible. He fled and then lived in hiding for five weeks. “I was not at all involved in that trip where people died,” he says. “The Indian government then looked for a scapegoat to cover up the fact that it had reacted far too laxly to the warnings. In the end, posting bail allowed me to stay out of jail. A judge then ruled that I was not at fault, and that I had nothing to do with the whole thing.”
Peter has been living in India for 25 years, guiding and organizing adventure activities and trekking tours. But that did not conclude the legal proceedings against Van Geit in India. His identity card was therefore withdrawn pending a final verdict. And that has serious consequences. “My mother is 92 years old and dying,” says Peter. “She was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. She has now completely metastasized, so she may only have a few days to live. The doctors called me just last week to say that I had to come to Belgium urgently if I wanted to see her one more time. But without a passport I can’t get a visa and I can’t leave the country.”
Until Peter came into contact with the Indian court and when he still had all his documents, he went to visit his mother every six months in a rest home in Lokeren. He has not been able to see her since his identity card was revoked five years ago, except during a weekly video call. “I am her only son and my father has died,” says Peter. “There is no one else in Belgium who can take care of her. Not even to arrange a funeral. It is my and her only wish to be able to say goodbye to each other before it is too late.”
Peter’s passport was revoked in 2018 after he was charged with the deaths of 23 walkers. According to Peter, he can also give the Indian authorities enough guarantees that he will return to India after seeing his mother for the last time. “I have a girlfriend, a house and savings in India,” he says. “This has become my new homeland. In addition, in September I am guiding an alpine tour with 60 participants. Of course I have to be there.”
Peter had hoped to receive a recommendation from the Belgian embassy, which would enable the Indian government to take an exceptional measure for him. But he backfired there. “My lawyers tell me that other embassies manage to help their compatriots in this way, but that is not the case for the Belgian one,” he says. “And that is very unfortunate.”
Peter’s mother is staying in a retirement home in Lokeren. The Belgian consulate in Mumbai in India and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot help Peter. “We are not authorized to intervene in Indian legal proceedings,” it said. “We cannot do anything despite this particularly difficult situation.”
Once the legal procedure is over, Peter can get his identity card back. But when exactly that will be is unclear. “The case could easily drag on for another 20 years,” he says. “What we are now going to try is to get the file off the track through a professional judge. That won’t be easy. Because despite the fact that I am innocent, due to the high number of deaths in the forest fire, I risk a life sentence.”