The harsh fate you flirt with if you have drugs in Asia
In the wake of the Indonesian executions of drug smugglers, Barbara McCarthy looks at the huge risks misguided people are prepared to run
Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30
Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were remembered in two high-profile funerals in Australia this weekend. They were the two 'kingpins' of the 'Bali 9' heroin smugglers who recently met their death by firing squad in a small courtyard on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan off the coast of Java, Indonesia.
They were tied to wooden stakes and shot, along with six other prisoners. Reports say the prisoners softly sang Amazing Grace while their distraught families waited nearby. It was barbaric and brutal. Despite a high-level campaign from their respective governments, an appeal for clemency failed.
President of Indonesia Joko Widodo, who has overseen 14 executions as part of a war on drug addiction this year alone, wants to send out a very clear message: Drug trafficking will not be tolerated. Figures suggest that 33 foreigners are on death row for drug crimes.
Indonesia's tough drug laws are old news. Like other south-east Asian countries popular with Irish travellers, it's a well-known fact that you would have to be out of your mind to carry drugs across the border, or worse, bring back an item for a 'friend.' It's drummed into you when you go backpacking, yet Irish people still use drugs where the death penalty prevails, and bring drugs with them across borders especially if they are just 'small amounts'.
There are over 1,000 Irish prisoners abroad. The world is awash with drugs, and statistics suggest that the opiates market is worth €50bn worldwide, while the cocaine market is worth over €70bn.
"There's a tonne of Irish people doing drugs openly over here. Many business people I know do coke at weekends, while countless Irish people who come over here bring yokes or coke up their **se," a contact in Bangkok informed me. It's certainly not uncommon, despite the scary signs at the airport, which state that anyone bringing narcotics illegally into the country will get the death penalty.
"Friends of mine brought ecstasy from Ireland in skin cream containers. They said they wrapped them really tightly with loads of cling film so the dogs wouldn't smell anything," a recent traveller to Thailand informed me. "They said they were better than the ones you get over there. Another guy brought an ounce of hash in the spine of his rucksack through the Thai border."
Another traveller who has just returned from South East Asia informed me: "There was a dude selling really bad weed in Lombok, Indonesia, which he brought with him on a boat. I was on the boat with him and he kept it in his bag despite the fact that customs checked us. The rest of us threw our stuff over board when we saw the officials.
"I don't know why people bring drugs with them. There are plenty of drugs on the islands," he added. "There is a bar in Koh Lanta in Thailand where you can ask for anything over the counter. As you know drugs are seriously outlawed in Thailand, but apparently not here for some reason."
In certain parts of Thailand, especially the island of Koh Phangan, you can buy amphetamines under the counter. When I was there, ecstasy, opium, mushrooms and weed were freely available, so people do get complacent.
But don't be fooled. There are cops out to catch foreigners. A recent military government action to "restore order" saw checkpoints in Bangkok's famous nightspots, with officers administering alcohol tests, drug tests and passport checks. Tourists reported claims of extortion, harassment and threatening behaviour while expats feared for their safety.
"In Thailand and most of Asia, with the exception of Singapore, Korea and Japan, you can buy your way out of anything and I mean anything, even murder," my contact in Bangkok said. "There are Irish people here in prison, but that's just because they didn't pay when the cops asked for money. Once it goes past them, your chances of bribing are slim. If, say, you are caught with a few pills and some smoke, the cops will take you to the station and put pressure on you for 10 hours and bulls**t you that you will spend 20 years in prison. At some point, when you break down, a cop will come in and tell you that there may be a way out. Then they walk you to an ATM and empty your account, whatever you can get." They will hold you until there is nothing left, whether its €3,000 or €10,000." What about people who only have €20? Many of the travellers to Thailand are young backpackers who live on a pittance. "You need to find it." Recent articles in travel books suggest that you need at least €1,000 to get out of jail free.
And you certainly don't want to end up in jail in South East Asia. "They are no walk in the park," my Thai source said. "I have been to the notorious Bangkwang Prison outside Bangkok and it was grim. The prison is known as 'Bangkok Hilton' after a 1989 mini-series starring Nicole Kidman and Denholm Elliot. "Think Midnight Express except all the guys are thin as opposed to large. I went to donate books and visited some Irish and British prisoners. There were a few Irish decent skins who were being kept for up to a month while awaiting trial. Other guys I met where there for money laundering for an Irish kingpin, who reportedly paid 100k to get a slap on the wrist and not a prison sentence," he said.
The guests at the "Bangkok Hilton" sleep head to toe in a line with no room to turn over alongside 24 other people in the cell. The lights stay on at night to ensure that prisoners slowly lose their minds. One in 10 people has mental illness issues. The richer you are, the closer you sleep to the door, the poorer you are the closer you sleep to the toilet hole.
There are many, many horror stories, one worse than the last, of people getting caught with drugs. Even small amounts can get you in trouble. When I was pulled aside at the airport and brought into a room, the officer put on a rubber glove before he examined my suitcase, stating that I had the drugs somewhere in the lining. He said you could go to jail with just a few grams of coke. It doesn't have to be 10 kilos. I was scared, even though I didn't have anything on me.
A lot of people still seem to think that they are above the law. "We brought some weed from Thailand to Abu Dhabi. We had a 10-hour layover and we sat on the beach and had a few smokes," I was told by a contact. "It's fine if you hide it really well. They won't find it." What about sniffer dogs and X-ray machines. "Plus it's the law and you're screwed if they catch you?" I asked. "It's fine, I brought a bit of smoke with me to Dubai before."
Many people forget that Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates and smuggling "just enough for a few joints", may not make any great shakes in some countries, but there it carries a hefty sentence. You get arrested for infinitesimal traces of any drug deemed illicit. A British man was famously sentenced to four years in jail for having 0.003 grams of cannabis in a cigarette sub stuck to the bottom of his shoe. He was pardoned after some months, but the ordeal probably scarred him for life.
The United Arab Emirates is one of the 20 or so countries which hands down capital punishment to drug offenders. Others include China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Iran, where 10,000 drug traffickers were executed in the past few decades. Worst thing is, you can get 10-15 years for a pitiful amount. If Ireland qualifies for the World Cup in Qatar then travelling fans need to be very careful.
"What happened in Indonesia is much more that a cautionary tale, it is a sombre reminder to all of us that we must observe the laws of every country we visit. While in most instances the consequences of infringement are not so extreme, the penalties can still be severe - particularly when drugs are involved (even in minimal quantities.) Please check out the 'It's Good to Know Before You Go information campaign' or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for information about the country you plan to visit," said Brian Hanley, coordinator for the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas.