'I won't knit - and I won't jump bail'

Two years ago, armed police burst into Alison Spedding's Bolivian flat and arrested her for drug possession. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, she's out on bail. Is she worried? Not at all, she tells Steve Boggan
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It sounds as if Alison Spedding has been chewing coca leaves, the ubiquitous - and perfectly legal - pick-me-up of choice in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Or perhaps she's simply feeling happy.

It sounds as if Alison Spedding has been chewing coca leaves, the ubiquitous - and perfectly legal - pick-me-up of choice in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Or perhaps she's simply feeling happy.

She speaks at 1,000mph, cracking jokes, digging for literary references and mining a huge well of self-deprecation. "How am I feeling?" she asks rhetorically. "I'm feeling sarcastic."

In Spedding's shoes, most people would be feeling frightened, depressed and unsure of their future. Best known as a Cambridge anthropologist and novelist, Spedding was arrested in La Paz in May 1998 during a police raid on her flat that uncovered more than two kilogrammes of marijuana. After admitting to possessing the drug for her own use - when denial is the norm - she was sentenced, perversely, as if she were a drug dealer, and given 10 years in prison.

Last week, because of reforms of Bolivia's penal code, she was granted bail while an appeal trundles its way to the Bolivian Supreme Court in Sucre. Once there, she could be freed or the sentence could be upheld, condemning her to up to seven and a half years more in jail. Yet here she is, staying in a friend's flat, with no possessions of her own, making prison jokes and refusing to feel sorry for herself.

"If you do drugs, it seems to me that you have to be aware that you might get busted, and you should probably think about that," she says candidly. "Kipling said screaming and crying is only for Latins and lesser breeds without the law. The way I see it, you have to grit your teeth and face up to it."

Unlike other Britons locked up abroad for dubious behaviour, Spedding refuses to whinge or ask for sympathy. Yet there is an injustice in her case that supporters are anxious to highlight. That relates to the fact that Bolivian law, arguably under pressure from the United States, does not differentiate between hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin and soft drugs such as marijuana, and it recognises personal use only below a couple of grammes. If offenders are caught with more than that, they are treated like drug peddlers.

At Spedding's trial, the prosecution tried, clumsily, to portray her as a dealer - something she flatly denies - but the judge said: "Dr Spedding had no need to deal in drugs. She is a university lecturer [in La Paz] and is also paid for other research projects. She has had money sent out to her by her family, is totally solvent and is disinterested in material things.

"There is no evidence of dealing or trafficking. There is no evidence of selling drugs to her students. It is purely a matter of possession. However, unfortunately, the quantity of marijuana found in her apartment is in excess of the quantity permitted under [the law]." She was then sentenced to 10 years.

"The knock on the door came about 7.30 one night," she says. "About 10 policemen came in and shouted, 'Who sold you the stuff?' Of course, I would never say. Then it turned out that the guy I bought it from - who was a dealer - had been raided, stoned out of his mind with two women, and when they shouted the same thing to him, he just came out with my name."

Exactly whose the drugs were and who sold them to Spedding is somewhat uncertain. Spedding took the blame, although it is thought she was minding most of the marijuana for the dealer, a friend who had done a similar favour for her in the past. She was not involved in dealing, but some of her supporters believe she has taken the blame away from two Bolivian women who were living with her, an enormous sacrifice if true.

"It doesn't really matter - it was in my flat and was my responsibility," she says. "Prison in Bolivia is actually not that bad. They don't lock you up in cells and there is free association 24 hours a day. The prison was a former clinic and was quite new. You could cook your own meals and have visitors whenever you wanted.

"Everyone is supposed to cook, but I conned them out of it in the beginning by saying I couldn't cook Bolivian food. The main reason for that is that it involves chopping vegetables into microscopic pieces, and I simply couldn't be bothered.

"There are several downsides, though. All the women knit, and if they're not knitting they're teaching someone to knit, and if they're not teaching someone to knit they're swapping knitting patterns. And I refuse to knit! Also, the prisoners have their children with them up to the age of five, and I hate children. I used to growl when they came near me, and by the end, they were using me as the prison bogeywoman. 'If you don't behave, we'll call Alison!'"

But there was a serious side. Last December, she developed ulcerative colitis, resulting in violent sickness and internal bleeding. A campaign was mounted by her mother Maureen Raybold, father Ken Spedding, and the organisation Prisoners Abroad to put pressure on the Government to ask the Bolivian authorities to help. It worked, and she was given medical treatment. But it was a close thing.

"We thought she might have died," said Mr Spedding. "But Prisoners Abroad and the British embassy staff were wonderful. She got the treatment she needed outside the prison and pulled through. She's very tough like that - determined to fight and to do things her own way. Once, at Cambridge, she was sharing with people in someone's trust-fund flat. She found that uncomfortable, so she moved out and into a single mother's flat on a council estate, figuring the single mum was in more need of the money.

"You could say she's eccentric, but weird would be closer the mark. She is flamboyant, headstrong and doesn't suffer fools gladly. It is difficult when you're proud of your daughter's academic achievements, for her to be known as a drug prisoner. From here, there's not a lot we can do for her. We simply aim to make sure legal matters progress smoothly and her health is OK. Any other help or advice, she simply wouldn't take."

Her incarceration also upset many Bolivians. An anthropology graduate from Cambridge and the London School of Economics, Dr Spedding, 38, had been working in Bolivia since 1988, and had built up a formidable reputation in her field. Living with coca-producing communities, she wrote about the economics of cocaine production and the effects of prohibition on peasants with no other cash crop to produce. She speaks Spanish and Aymara, the language of Andean Indians, and is very much a part of the local landscape. Despite her work, she believes her arrest was in no way political. It is a measure of her stature in Bolivia that her students from San Andres University were allowed to visit her in prison and to receive her words through the bars.

"She is seen as something of a hero there," says Carlo Laurenzi, director of Prisoners Abroad. "I think the authorities don't quite know what to make of her. But one thing is certain; she plans to stay in Bolivia, and she is much more use to the state as an academic teaching its students than she is rotting behind bars."

Either way, Spedding seems determined to make the most of it. "I got a lot of writing done, including a weird science fiction novel and some other stuff, and I did a lot of reading," she said. "Life is hard, so it doesn't really matter where you are as long as you're experiencing it.

"When they arrested me, they took away all my possessions, $22,000 savings and a full manuscript, which they seem to have lost. I spend a lot of time now writing more, chewing coca and chasing the authorities for my stuff."

So what of the future? Spedding hopes that the Supreme Court will reduce her sentence to time served (it could take three years for her appeal to be heard). More realistically, her lawyer may find an abuse of process that would take the case back to square one.

"I could leave the country on false papers, but where would I go?" she asks. "I want to live here, and I'm an academic. I'm not going to go on the run and end up working as a cook. No, I'm going to stand my ground, try and get some teaching work and hope that, some day, they'll reduce my sentence so I can put all this behind me."

Whatever happens, you can't help thinking that Spedding will get a novel out of it - a novel whose hero laughs in the face of danger and finds half-full glasses at every step of the way.