Desperate and unsuspecting South Africans are being lured into drug syndicates and are paying a heavy price in Thailand’s prisons
”Thank you for coming,” said Nandipha (not her real name), struggling to make herself heard above the babble. “I don’t get to see anyone except for a kind lady from the church. And I can’t speak Thai, so I can hardly talk to anyone.”
In her early 20s, she looks 16. Our conversation is conducted through crackling microphones, wire mesh, bars and glass with a metre gap distancing the prisoners’ fence from the visitors’ benches. On either side of us other friends and relatives are making avid use of the twice-weekly, 20-minute visiting period.
Unlike the eight other South African women incarcerated in Bangkok’s Klong Prem Women’s Correctional Institution, Nandipha hasn’t been here long. And because she is awaiting trial, she is held separately from them.
The mid-1990s saw a rash of South Africans convicted of drug offences but in recent years there has been a lull — until the arrest of Nandipha and another woman last year. Her real identity cannot be disclosed. After her arrest at Bangkok Airport with “48 bags” of heroin strapped to her chest, she signed a document waiving her right to media coverage.
Born in a Free State township, Nandipha never completed her matric and worked as a shop assistant. Then she met Thembi, a well-off, sophisticated acquaintance of her mother with homes in Nandipha’s township and Johannesburg.
Thembi is allegedly a member of a Nigerian-run drug syndicate operating between South Africa, Thailand and China. “She was beautifully dressed, with gold chains and designer clothes,” Nandipha said. “And when she offered me a job in Thailand I thought my life was made.”
As Nandipha did not have a passport, Thembi provided one and an air ticket. She did not ask what the job entailed. But on landing in Bangkok: “Thembi told me that the job she does is drugs and that because she bought me a ticket I must now pay her back.
“It was a strange place, I couldn’t speak the language, I had no friends. I had no choice,” she said, adding that she was kept under surveillance by a Nigerian syndicate member who accompanied her everywhere.
This was the “enforcer”, said Bertil Lintner, Swedish author and expert on international drug trafficking syndicates.
Lintner said the syndicates recruit several “mules” at a time to carry varying quantities of narcotics. They designate one or two as “decoys or sacrifices” who would be arrested by airport customs after a “tip-off” from the syndicates.
Meanwhile, mules carrying larger consignments slip through undetected.
“Usually the ones with the smallest amounts get nabbed,” said Lintner. “The numbers look good for the Thai government’s war on drugs and the ‘risk’ factor is profitable for syndicates because the higher price of heroin is maintained.”
Nandipha, apparently sacrificed on her first run, faces 20 to 50 years in jail.
“Nandipha is clearly a victim, not a criminal,” said the Bangkok office of the International Organisation on Migration. Lured to Thailand on false pretences, she is classed as a victim of human trafficking.
But in Thailand’s criminal justice system, mitigating factors carry little weight. “Unfortunately our flawed legal system presumes guilt until proven innocent,” said a Bangkok-based human rights lawyer, who requested anonymity. “A guilty plea seems the less malevolent option because it can take years for cases to be heard, during which awaiting-trial prisoners remain incarcerated.”
Depending on the quantity of narcotics involved, drug smuggling carries a sentence of death by lethal injection. A guilty plea commutes this to 100 years’ imprisonment without parole.
Nandipha has no prospect of intercession by her government. Unlike most other democracies, South Africa has no prisoner transfer treaties with other countries under which nationals can serve a portion of their sentences at home.
“There are no plans to consider such a treaty,” said South Africa’s ambassador to Thailand and former DA politician Douglas Gibson. “It’s a shocking situation,” Gibson conceded, “but the South African government respects the laws of other countries and will not intervene in their judicial processes.”
A former senior official in foreign affairs said South Africa’s stance stemmed from the government’s desire not to appear soft on crime.
In Thai jails bruises, scars and averted eyes bear testament to the treatment of prisoners who complain too loudly. “Here, if you cry, they just laugh. You must be strong,” Nandipha said.
State-appointed legal representatives generally cannot speak English and, said the South African inmates, often do not explain the judicial process to their clients.
Nandipha’s court ordeal still lies ahead of her.
The South African old hands describe being herded — men in shackles, women barefoot in smocks — into a courtroom called the Pointing Room. They had no legal representation and there was no pre-trial hearing or presentation of evidence before their plea was heard.
Said a lawyer from the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand: “You have about an hour to decide whether to confess your guilt or take your very slim chances with a lengthy trial in an extremely hostile environment.”
In a letter home in isiXhosa, Nadipha complained of not having money to buy soap and of terrible sleeping conditions.
Released South Africans say the women sleep 50 to a cell.
“It’s impossible to turn around and getting up to go to the toilet means losing your place,” said Nandipha. “So I’ve developed a strong bladder.”
Unlike their male counterparts, women are prohibited from smoking and can only receive food to supplement their daily diet of rice and fish heads from the prison canteen, courtesy of visitors. Men may receive parcels from outside.
Seconds before the microphones were switched off, Nandipha whispered: “They said I might be here for many years. I couldn’t bear that. Do you think they could send me home so at least I can serve my time close to my family and boyfriend?”
Hazel Friedman’s story on South African drug convicts in Thailand was aired on Special Assignment on SABC3 on Tuesday 17th March at 9.30pm
BEWARE OF ANY CONNECTION TO NIGERIANS. We mean no offence to the few honest Nigerian people in the world but statistically, Nigerians are key players in Drug Trafficking.