Traffickers swamp foreign jails

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The Independent Online
Vicky Richards, the eight-year-old British schoolgirl left stranded in Morocco for 10 days after her parents were charged with drug smuggling, flew back to London with her mother yesterday, leaving her father behind in a Tangiers jail.

David Richards has been jailed for five years and becomes the 1,182nd Briton to be incarcerated in a foreign jail at the moment on drugs charges.

The number is so high that a Government film warning people of the dangers of drug trafficking will be shown on chartered and scheduled flights.

But will the determined drug trafficker learn the lesson? Mr Richards took the risk and his child had to be cared for by the British consul while he and his wife went on trial for attempting to export pounds 856,000 worth of hashish. His wife, Jill, a charity worker, was cleared and looked grim-faced as she arrived at London's Heathrow airport yesterday.

Britons have been convicted in 71 countries, including 11 where the penalty for some drugs offences is death. The charity Prisoners Abroad, which traces and supports UK nationals jailed overseas, believes the total could be as high as 1,800. The official figure has almost doubled in the past three years from 759 in 1993 (peaking last October at 1,254) and it is believed there are more people from Britain incarcerated around the world for narcotics than from any other western European nationality.

Spain has the largest number of Britons held on drug charges, some 277, followed by France with 241, the USA and Thailand with 99 each and Morocco, Germany and Belgium with 37 apiece. Among the few other countries to release figures, only The Netherlands comes close to the UK's drugs tally, with 1,063 Dutch men and women held outside Holland. At the last count in 1994, 647 foreign nationals were being held on drugs charges in prisons in England and Wales.

Prisoners Abroad estimates a quarter are in custody on remand, awaiting trial, while the rest have been convicted and are serving their sentences. Many are living in appalling conditions, especially in jails in the Third World where violence and torture can be commonplace. One former prisoner, freed after 13 years in jail in Peru for cocaine smuggling, said he witnessed regular beatings, rapes and murders in several jails run by prisoners where inmates and guards feared for their lives.

The Foreign Office said the high proportion of Britons who travelled abroad and misunderstandings over border restrictions between European countries were partly responsible for the high figures.

"A lot of the increase has come from people being arrested on the France- Spain border near Bordeaux, thinking that the relaxation of passport controls would also mean a relaxation of security checks," said an FO spokesman.

"Big mistake. The security checks went on and lots of people were caught coming through from Spain with drugs."

FO officials are concerned that people do not understand the consequences of being caught trafficking drugs.

A survey carried out last year to test people's reactions to publicity material on drug trafficking revealed that 70 per cent of those asked believed that British consuls in foreign cities could automatically get people out of jail.

"They thought that a British passport was like a get-out-of-jail-free card," said a senior FO official, "but the answer is that if you break the law while abroad you are likely to end up in jail. It is worrying if this is what people believe. They are bound to be disappointed with what we can do for them."

Two major airlines have provisionally agreed to show the latest Foreign Office video, Holiday of a Lifetime. Produced at a cost of pounds 59,000, the video targets the 18-23 age group. It shows a group of young people dancing in a bar, somewhere in Europe. A drugs transaction occurs in view of the barman who calls the police and one of the group ends up in an interrogation cell. A voice-over says the British consul can visit prisoners to make sure they are fairly treated and get them an English speaking lawyer, "but we can't get you out. Stay legal, or you could be having the holiday of a lifetime."

The FO produced two videos in 1991 for television companies which broadcast them as public information films, but only when they have spare airtime. The spokesman said the adverts were shown "many hundreds of times a year" but Prisoners Abroad said this could mean them being aired "always at 4 in the morning when nobody's watching".

Among others recently jailed in Morocco were Claire Martin and Sally Griffiths, both from Essex, who were sentenced to five years each for trying to smuggle 12lb of cannabis by plane to Amsterdam. The two women, aged in their late teens, were arrested at Casablanca airport after drugs were found in their luggage. They are awaiting the outcome of an appeal against their sentences.

The British contingent in foreign jails is stretching the resources of Prisoners Abroad to the limit. The charity's executive director, Carlo Laurenzi, said as income went down, casework was going up.

"I'm trying to be a magician here," said Mr Laurenzi. "At the moment the total number of prisoners is fluctuating. Some 75 to 80 per cent are in prison for drug-related charges including theft, and 60 per cent of that is trafficking and possession."

The charity is focusing its next annual campaign on drug-related imprisonments.

Real Life section, page 10