Of an Embassy and Brits in the sh*t 111- A never ending story
This is a blog only and comes with a cash saving tip for holders of expensive British passports.
Warning: But it's probably an offence to alter your British passport.
Pixtures: Andrew Chant & Foreign Prisoner Support Service
I was in Vientiane this week on the case of 20-yr-old and pregnant Samantha Orabator, who 'faced death' for drugs trafficking in Laos. Well she faced death in the British press until the Laos Government announced they did not shoot pregnant women. (Though of course they did not say if they shot them later).
In comes an email from Simon Burrowes, still stuck in Thailand and watching the story on the internet, who says something to the affect that she might as well put a gun to her head now, as she was unlikely to get any help from the British Consul either.
How wrong could Simon be! In fact since her arrest at Wattay airport last August the British Embassy has been hot on the case of Samantha.
The Ambassador Quinton Quayle, interrupted his jogging * and otherwise busy schedule twice to see her. And Vice Consul Paul Lawrence was in town with the delightful Anna Morris from the justice and human rights charity 'Reprieve', which last week held a press conference in Westminster.
(* I mention this only because H.E. Quinton Quayle has established a reputation for jogging along in the Embassy grounds to his headphones playing, I suspect, the 'Spice Girls' . Whatever,'It's a 'surreal sight', writes Rory Alcoyoto in the Architect's Journal.
I guess it must be, watching the Ambassador in full motion in the 'three-hectare mission, a lush, verdant oasis in the heart of seething, Blade Runner-esque, eight million-plus Bangkok', and passing those 7000 square metres of 'modernist grammar ' new apartments, and 'beckoning club house and pool' inside a wall with an 'overtly rhythmic expression' )
Anyway from the Bangkok Embassy grounds Quinton Quayle has personally been fielding interviews, and press calls to the Embassy have been answered promptly, if not within seconds then at least within minutes.
(In fact they have been so good with their info that even stories I have been fuelling are coming back to me through the BBC journalist)
British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell has also made representations to the Laos Foreign Minister on a visit to London, (a) expressing concern for the health of Samantha's unborn baby, conceived in Phonthong Prison, Vientiane, after her arrest (b), concern for her legal representation at her forthcoming arrest, and of course (c) Britain's opposition to the death penalty.
Laos sentenced to death 39 people for drugs trafficking since 2003, says Reprieve. But their campaign hit a slight set back with the Laos ' no death' announcement and journalists could put down their knitting and leave the guillotine.
Reprieve, also suggested at their London press conference that Samantha, who was born in Nigeria and brought to Britain when she was eight, might have been raped in Phonthong Prison in Vietnam, but then again they were only guessing, wrongly as it happens.
They also suggested she had not had full Consular services and that the British Embassy did not know about the case until December. They appear to also have been wrong on both counts.
Anna Morris, a barrister for Reprieve was holed up in one of the smartest hotels in town, and up until I left, had had her requests to visit Samantha blissfully ignored by the Laos Government.
She had flown in because Reprieve had been told that Samantha's trial was to start this week and would take place without Samantha having any legal representation. Its now scheduled for next Tuesday.
I went to see her and my colleague Andy also wanted a photo. 'Can we do this upstairs?' she asks. I reply: 'Well there might be a problem with two men coming to your hotel room in Laos.'
She retorts quickly: 'I can assure you there will be no men coming into my hotel room,' and leads us to a lounge area on the mezzanine floor.
Samantha has denied the drugs were hers, said Anna.
'Well, ' Trouble is,' said Consul Charlie Parker Knowles shaking the hand of Bridget Jones then wiping his hand on his collar, in the film 'Bridget Jones 'Edge of Reason' 'You see, most people say that.' (The British Consul cameo is the best part of that film)
Samantha is young, female, pretty and pregnant. The Irish papers have been going full on on this story, because Samantha's mother Jane is a student at Trinity College Dublin, so I'm there for the Irish Press, British press and Sky TV.
Andy my colleague and I put in a full day's work, broken only by lunch at the Cote D'Azur. Thankfully Andy is not arrested for spying when he gets his camera out outside the prison but the driver has kittens and he hits us with another US$10 'danger money'.
Actually not all the British press are represented. The' respectable' British press including the Guardian have in the main decided to take wire copy and re-write the internet. Budgets have been cut and Foreign Correspondents are dropping like flies all over the world.
To be fair to Samantha, it is quite possible she was forced to carry drugs. These so-called mules do get threats. But for the time being we do not know. Nevertheless I would not wish this jail in Vientiane on anyone
This story is not going to have the same wheels as the one 16 or so years ago when two British girls Karyn Smith, 17, and Patricia Cahill, 19, were arrested at Don Muang airport with a staggering 27 kilos of heroin.
(They got sent home on a Royal Pardon after 3 years. Abhisit Vejjajiva, then Government spokesman for Chuan Leekpai, broke the news to me by phone when the decision was made).
The Laos authorities say they have caught Samantha bang to rights. She was caught at the airport not only with drugs in her luggage but also secreted in her body, A.L .the BBC man me tells me, and A.L . has an ear to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because he actually got official accreditation.
The first time I went to Vietiane was in 1987 with Princess Anne. She was President of the Save the Children Fund. I was with the Observer newspaper.
In those days we were followed by Russian trained Lao agents from Laos' not so secret service in black Volga cars. Bill Mellor, an Australian journalist and I solved the problem by inviting the agents to join us on our night out. They said: 'Why not?' After all they could do their job and get free beer too. We had a good night, but I still had to leave the country before filing the story.
'Sorry Andrew. We're going to have to skip you this time we've got Joanna Lumley on live talking about the Gurkhas'. I happily gave way to my schoolboy pin-up. But make a mental note to support the rights of Fijian soldiers in the British army in the future.
A.L has started calling us the 'Two Andys'. (We're beginning to sound like a comedy double act.) We start off at a place called the Bopennyang, head on to the Red Mekhong and in a long night take in two discos.
A.L is already known for his big white helmet , which he introduced to the world, during the red-shirt demonstrations in Bangkok. I ask him to give me new tips on how to do a live broadcast when you're three sheets to the wind.
By 3 I clearly have not taken in any of A.L.'s tips, one of which involves sticking your hand under your chin, (clearly this is for sound broadcasts only) because hardly anybody can understand what I am babbling on about.
The following morning, Andy complains how much money he has spent compared to his 'loads of dosh' BBC One counterpart. (it's the BBC World guys who are poor).
I won't say Andy is mean but he steams off the full-page paper visas, issued by Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, so he can make his ten year British passport last longer! His passport is now truly cooked.
We only board the plane back to Bangkok after a Thai Airlines representative makes us sign a form saying we do not want any food. (We are a late booking and apparently they may not have enough)
Meanwhile 'Reprieve' has sent a letter to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
'We urge the British Government to sign a treaty of prisoner exchange with the Lao Government that will allow Samantha to return home before June 6th, when she enters her third trimester.'
Samantha is not only pregnant but apparently had a miscarriage in jail according to the Laos authorities. The word 'trimester' however is not going to make the British press.
But, seriously for a few seconds, this story has at least put the spotlight on prison conditions in Laos where foreigners are still put in 'the stocks' , as a fuzzy photograph we obtained shows.
And Samantha does not have any record of drugs trafficking, but does have a history of depression. She is in a position I would not wish on my worst enemy.
I have been to 'Party' trials before and the current campaign for Samantha is probably not going to change the minds of the judges at the People's Court.
They are unused to 'not guilty' pleas and prefer expressions of remorse and a desire for re-education.
But with some luck and for political expediency, there is some hope, that she will not spend the rest of her life in Phonthong. A formerly perfectly healthy British prisoner died of neglect there last year.
Last Thursday Laos signed a Prisoner Transfer Treaty with the British Government.
But here's the rub. Did Samantha get pregnant to avoid the death penalty, as one paper has suggested? And how did she do it?
At the moment there is one father- to-be in Phonthong Prison. He thinks the Laos authorities are so dumb that they are never going to find out who is he is.
Lao official Khenthong Nuanthasing has been quoted as saying Miss Orobator was not raped.
'It's impossible because the prison in Phonthong is specially created for women prisoners. Even the guards are all ladies.'
Asked how Miss Orobator had become pregnant, he added: 'We should know at a later stage. I want to know too.'
What 'no prisoner association' in Phonthong?
'It certainly was not true when I was there,' Kay Danes of the Foreign Prisoners Support Service says. 'We were locked up separately at night but there was association during the day.'
Kay Danes is a remarkable woman. She and her husband Kerry an ex-SAS man, who ran Laos Securicor, were framed by the Laos authorities, for allegely illegally smuggling gems (They were employed as security by the Laos Sapphire Company). They were eventually released under pressure from the Australian Government, and she wrote of her experience in 'Nightmare in Laos'.
Finally back in Bangkok I listen to A.L. on the BBC's 'From our own correspondent': 'Would Samantha Orobator be on the front page of the newspapers if she had been caught carrying heroin into the UK?'
'She would, of course, be given proper medical treatment and a free defence lawyer, but would there have been such an outpouring of public sympathy? '
He put the story in perspective and questions why this should be a big newspaper story. Well possibly because recently foreign prisoners in Phongtong Prison have been coming out in body bags.
But who has done more reports and spent the most money chasing this story? Could it have been the BBC? Try an internet wordcount!
Newspapers can and do turn by the way. At the moment Samantha is a suffering Brit in a foreign hell hole....and tomorrow?
Edited May 8th: Reason: deletion of excess verbiage, a slow trickle of new information
Edited May 12 2009: To include the fact the a Prisoner Transfer Agreement was concluded with the U.K. last Thursday