Brigene Young became the first foreigner to be released from a Mauritius prison after being charged for drug trafficking. She was one of the lucky ones, considering two of the original 31 South Africans in Mauritius’s prison system have died – one from suicide, the other from cardiac complications.
The focus now turns to a court decision which could see the 28 South Africans in Mauritius serve the remainder of their sentences in South Africa and closer to their families. BRIGENE Young was only 20 years old when her life changed forever and she suddenly had to call a bug-infested maximum-security women’s prison her home for the next seven years. Leaving her father at age 15 to start working and paying for her way, Brigene had to grow up fast.
“I worked one job on weekends and others during the week after school,” a now-free 28-year-old tells us, having just returned from her Mauritian incarceration. “I completed matric and was engaged at the same time. I was very independent; maybe a little bit of a rebel too. I was very young and naïve.” It may have been her ability to trust others and the fact that she rarely picked up a newspaper that contributed to her befriending an older man who would end up being the reason she was caught with 900-grams of heroin as she landed on the popular honeymooning, Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
“I worked in a bar and he was one of my regular customers,” Brigene says. “We became friends. He asked me if I liked travelling and I said of course. He took the time to get to know me. He offered for me to accompany him on a trip to Mauritius and I agreed.” But four days before they were scheduled to leave, the man cancelled because “he had other clients coming in the same weekend”. Brigene, however, was convinced to go ahead
and enjoy her ‘free’ holiday. “He gave me a pair of high platform sandals which he asked me to wear on the plane,” Brigene says. “I did suspect something. I asked him if anything was inside the shoes and he said it was better I didn’t know. I was scared to say no.”
Brigene boarded from Johannesburg and landed at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport four hours later. As she walked through customs, some men approached her and told her to follow them. “They took me into this room,” she tells people. “They told me that they had been waiting for me. They went straight for my shoes and found the heroin. They barely checked my bag.” According to Brigene, Mauritius’ airport security isn’t as jacked up as South Africa’s is. “They don’t have X-ray machines and neither do they have dogs,” she says.
“The other girls I met in prison had similar stories to mine: shoes and the fact that the officials knew exactly who to arrest from the flight. They got a call from South Africa telling them to stop me.” It’s this revelation that leads Brigene to believe that she was merely a decoy for the real traffickers on her flight. It’s something George housewife, Patricia Gerber, agrees with. Her son, Johann, was arrested in 2005 after also being offered a ‘free’ holiday to Mauritius in exchange for carrying 920-grams of heroin in his stomach. “He was told to deliver the drugs but he threw them into the hotel flowerbeds,” Patricia says. “When he got to his hotel room the anti-drug smuggling unit was already waiting for him.
They asked him where the drugs were and he took them downstairs to the show them where he had thrown the heroin. They arrested him.” Patricia alleges that her son was forced to sign an already-prepared confession and was not granted any legal counsel.
“The ‘confession’ is filled with the words ‘willingly’ and ‘knowingly’ so you can’t plead not guilty,” Patricia says. “When he refused to sign it, he was put in a dark cell and was given nothing but bread and water. After 21 days he could no longer bear it and signed the ‘confession’.” Johann remained an awaiting trial prisoner for two years before he was sentenced.
“The sentence is already decided when you’re arrested. There is no trial,” Patricia says. “In Mauritius, there is no remand and no parole.” Ever since her son was sentenced to nine years in the Mauritian prison system, she has been fighting for him as well as the 28 other South Africans languishing in that island’s prisons. In August last year Patricia brought an application against the state for its failure to properly consider her request that the government enter into a prisoner exchange agreement with the government of Mauritius, or alternatively to provide sufficient reasons for its decision not to do so. “We’ve been waiting since March 2010 for the ruling on the case,” she says.
Despite Mauritius enacting a law in 2001 allowing for its foreign prisoners to return to their home countries – which includes Britain, Tanzania and Kenya – to serve out the remainder of their sentences there, and the fact that Mauritius has extended this same agreement to the South African government, our foreign-based prisoners remain in the island’s jails. “Ours are the only foreign prisoners in Mauritius whose country hasn’t signed the agreement,” Patricia says.
“They’re ridiculed by all the other prisoners! They’re told that their government doesn’t care about them!” According the Department of Foreign Affairs, “The South African government is of the view that South Africans who are arrested for crimes committed abroad must serve the prison back term in the countries where these offences were committed.” Davanand Naidoo, chief director of Consular Services at the Department of Foreign Affairs, tells people that this remains the stance of government. “I can’t comment on the prisoner exchange agreement right now because we’re awaiting judgement on that particular court case,” Davanand says. “But what I can tell you is how many South Africans are detained abroad.” According to Davanand, there are 1 062 South Africans in foreign prisons, with 65 percent (or 691) of those held on drugs-related charges. If the judgement does result in the state having to sign the exchange agreement, the only excuse it could possibly make would be cost and not a lack of space in our prisons.
Phumlani Ximiyam, spokesperson at the Department of Correctional Services, says of the 161 204 detainees in our prisons (47 904 awaiting trial and 113 300 sentenced), some 8 580 are made up of foreigners (3 712 awaiting trial and 4 868 sentenced) from countries including Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Mauritius, Monaco, Germany, France and the UK.
“While we await judgement, people are dying,” Patricia says, relating the story of Jan Venter, 32, who died in August this year while serving a 34-year sentence in Mauritius for smuggling 1.5 kilogram of heroin. Jan’s mother Wilmien put the blame of her son’s death squarely on the South African authorities who refused to sign the transfer agreement Mauritius had offered. According to Mauritius’s chief police medical officer, Jan’s heart had swelled to three times its normal size and his lungs had filled with liquid. Even though he was spitting blood and was barely able to stand up, his mother was quoted as saying, “…he had been to the doctor and he had given him Panado.”
According to Brigene, regardless of the ailment, all a prisoner in a Mauritian prison is given is Panado. “The conditions inside the prison are terrible,” she says. “The mattresses are very old and are sometimes full of puke from the heroin addicts. There is no hot water and you have to do your business in a bucket! The worst part is the bedbugs – they eat you all the time. It’s so bad they are living in the walls! They run over you all the time making it difficult to sleep.”
What ever your stance on this particular issue, it can’t be denied that the family and friends of those imprisoned abroad suffer at home. Those who do eventually make it out come back to an alien existence in a country they hardly recognise. “I was only gone for seven years and am struggling,” Brigene says. “What about someone like Vuyo (Vuyiswa Patience Makinan)?
She didn’t deserve a 32-year sentence! She’s 32 years old now; how is she going to cope in South Africa when she’s 60 years old?” Patricia, however, charges that the crime was actually committed in South Africa, but believes our police get kickbacks for tipoff’s in foreign countries. People posed this question to the Police’s Brigadier Sally de Beer who says, “If someone is found to be illegally in possession of narcotics, they would be arrested. It is not standard procedure for a detective to get a merit bonus for every arrest, but should his/her commander apply for an award (certificate or cash) for outstanding work, the application will be considered in terms of police regulations.