Friday, 30 August 2013

Banged up in Bangkok - Sandra Gregory tells me her story

Airport security checks make me uneasy - they are one of the things I dislike most about going on holiday, that and turbulence.

I sort of hope they do stop me, so I can willingly throw open my bags with a smile and show I have nothing I shouldn’t, instead of the patting down, suspicious looks and sinking feeling when your hand luggage doesn’t emerge from the x-ray scanner with all the others.

Of course I know nothing will happen, my bags are cleaner than a nun’s habit with any piece of medication on display, clearly labelled and backed up with a valid doctor’s prescription.

I cannot imagine what it feels like to be caught with something. Take the usual anxious feeling and magnify it by a billion, that probably gets close, and it is what two British girls arrested in Peru experienced just recently.

Most people will never know what it is like to see your life crumble as white powder trickles from slits carved into your luggage by customs officials before the cuffs are slipped on.

But one person who knows exactly what Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum are going through in Peru is Sandra Gregory, who shared her story with me this week (for the full interview see today's (Friday) Daily Express).

Anyone around in 1993 will immediately recognise the image of Sandra being carted away in the back of a Thai prison van after being handed a 25-year sentence for trying to smuggle heroin through Bangkok airport.

She was lucky, she was originally handed a death sentence which was reduced to life (99.9 years in Thailand), and then 25 years.

But the shock, panic, desperation and abandonment from the moment you feel that hand on your shoulder is something nobody who hasn’t been through it can empathise with.

“I can’t describe it,” Sandra told me.

“Imagine you have been caught doing something you shouldn’t at school, imagine that feeling, and then magnify it over and over, it’s something like that.

“It is sheer panic, but even as I realised I had been caught, I didn’t know just how bad it was.”

As she was chained to a bench at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport a British Embassy official turned up.

But rather than put her arms round her and tell her she’d been bloody stupid but ‘don’t worry someone’s going to help sort this out’, she offered the very basic assistance.

In fact you are an irritation to these people as they now have to deal with the authorities, the media and you - and quite frankly it’s a pain, Sandra explained.

One of the most poignant things she told me was how this official, while going through her bag, pulled out a Sting CD.

She looked at it, and said “I have this very same CD”,  and then she began to cry.

“I thought why are you crying?” Sandra told me.

“I just didn’t realise how bad this was, but she did, all the while I was trying to plead with them that I wasn’t a real drug smuggler, that I had made a mistake and please let me go home.

“But there is nothing they can do, and I think the girls in Peru are about now realising, there is nobody that can help them.”

It is a terrifying story - but throws up many strands of debate which Sandra brought to my attention. Firstly, there is the issue of sympathy.

I know, you can’t blame anyone for showing no sympathy to people who smuggle hard drugs through airport security.

But surely it’s clear neither these girls nor Sandra are mastermind kingpins in international drug smuggling cartels - they have all been used.

In Sandra’s case she took a man up on an offer to carry his personal supply through the airport. With the girls, although the facts are unclear, I imagine it’s not a dissimilar tale.

I am not condoning or supporting drug smugglers, in fact I am condemning the gutless dealers who coerce young people to take all the risk peddling their wares - notice it is nearly always young girls paraded in front of the cameras with their suitcases in front of them, notice the dealers are never anywhere to be seen.

Sandra alerted me to the “ridiculous” warnings parents give their children before going abroad - “be careful someone doesn’t slip anything in your bag”.

“That is just not how it happens,” she said.

“Is a drug dealer going to slip thousands and thousands of pounds worth of his livelihood into some unattended bag when he has no idea where it is going? No, it's nonsense. 

“These people are clever, they will have groomed these young girls, told them they are beautiful, offered them drinks, a free holiday to Peru, a nice hotel.

“Then bang, they are handed a bag and told to carry it through customs, and it is all too late.”

She  said this story highlights a “21st century feminist issue”.

The air is now abuzz with “those silly girls” and “they must have known” but Sandra said people are missing a point.

She said: “These girls represent hundreds of young women in prisons across the world.”

And I imagine she is right - after all she has been there, bought the t-shirt, and told her story on the television series 'Banged Up Abroad'.

Young, vulnerable and naive women and men are handed colossal sentences for making  stupid decisions, trusting people, and not thinking of their actions.

It is a very sad tale, and as Sandra spoke to me at length she admitted every time this happens she gets emotional.

I asked her about the prison, we have all heard tales of the Bangkok Hilton, and if I am honest, morbid curiosity has made me wonder what it is like inside.

It is as bad as you think, Sandra told me - insects, heat, overcrowding violence, loneliness, despair.

There is also the added burden of knowing you are thousands of miles from home and no-body is going to come and get you.

On that note, she has a message to travellers to Thailand.

Notices in guest houses and guidebooks  invite travelers to go and visit foreign prisoners in Thai jails - think very carefully before you do.

On a trip to Thailand a few years ago I was tempted to do this before I had a conflict of conscience - why did I want to do it?

Part of the reason was to do something to help, but I admit, most of it was curiosity, I wanted a snoop inside the Bangkok Hilton - a first hand view and the chance to be able to say I had been inside.

I abandoned my plans and I am glad I did, Sandra explained such visits were often more traumatic than helpful.

“There would be an announcement over the tannoy,” she said, “telling me I had a visitor”.

“I would be taken into a little room, and shown a passport before I agreed to the visit.

“I would hope it was someone come to help, a friend of a friend with something, someone who knew my family.

“When I got there it would be these bloody tourists,  they had come to have a look and say ‘hiya! how are you?!’

“Then they would tell me they were going to spend the rest of their holiday on the beaches, and I would be taken back into the prison - I hated those visits.”

It is 20 years exactly since Sandra was arrested in Bangkok, and talking to her reminded me of those images of that terrified young girl in the orange overall sobbing as she was dragged off to prison.

She now uses the experience to warn others, talking in schools and writing a fascinating, touching and terrifying account of her experience - ‘Forget You Had A Daughter”.

Of all the interviews I have done over the past decade, and there have been a few, I thank Sandra for giving me one of the most honest, open and frank.

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