A conspiracy theory too far: Nick Cohen and Teresa Poole on the tangled case of the British girls freed last week from a Thai jail

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The Independent Online
NO MESSENGER from the Queen has arrived at Bullwood Hall Women's Prison to read out pardons to its contingent of West African drug smugglers. Prime ministers have not intervened, no reporters, Foreign Office mandarins, nor lawyers with pounds 100,000 contracts for story rights in their back pockets have shown the slightest interest in their fates.

Unlike Patricia Cahill and Karyn Smith, freed by King Bhumibol of Thailand last week after a plea for clemency from John Major and Cardinal Hume, the bewildered drug 'mules' in the Essex jail - third world women who risked everything for a few thousand pounds - will serve their sentences in anonymity.

Deborah (not her real name), a passive women who professes to be a devout Christian, has a daughter with a brain tumour. She hoped to raise pounds 700 towards the cost of an operation in Ghana by smuggling cocaine through Heathrow and was caught.

From her cell, she wrote in broken English to the London- based Female Prisoners Welfare Project: 'I can't get peace of mind to rest. I felt as if someone had cut my legs off, had taken everything in my life away from me. Every night I become quite desperate for sleep. I had a letter from my grandmother she say my daughter in hospital. I want to go home and see my poor children. Do you think if I go home everything be all right?'

She was carrying 700g of cocaine. Cahill and Smith were caught at Bangkok airport in July 1990 with 29kg of heroin.

Deborah will go back to Ghana after her six-year sentence without the money for her daughter's operation, or anything else, to find that her small trading business has collapsed.

A syndicate set up by Stephen Jakobi, Smith's solicitor, which includes her family and a local reporter, talked last week of selling her story to newspapers for between pounds 70,000 and pounds 100,000. The International Management Group, to which Mr Jakobi's brother is a consultant, is handling all offers. A spokeswoman said that book and television deals could also be on the cards. Cahill is also said to want pounds 100,000.

A feature of this case is the way Mr Jakobi has backed his claims of a miscarriage of justice in Thailand with a secondary line of attack: he has sought to establish the innocence of Smith by blaming Cahill.

He said last week: 'Karyn did not know there were drugs at the airport; Patricia did. She was made to carry them by her boyfriend. He beat her up and said her life wasn't worth a penny. But she doesn't leave him . . . she goes back for more. Patricia knew the trip was about drugs and she lied her head off to Karyn and took her along for company. Karyn was very nave. Patricia . . . she's not a nice piece of work.'

Patricia's parents, Patrick and Frances Cahill, have looked on with growing anger. Before they heard that the Foreign Office's behind-the-scenes manoeuvres had secured the release of the two women, they said: 'Most people now know that our daughter went to Thailand because of threats to her life and a severe beating. If Eric and Marilyn Smith and their solcitor truly believe their daughter to be innocent, they would not behave as they do, seriously jeopardising her pardon.

'Stephen Jakobi does not represent Patricia, but allegations made by him are having an adverse effect on her pardon. The dishonesty is not in Thailand, it is here in this country.'

Mr Jakobi, 58, a London lawyer, took up Karyn's case, after hearing about her on the radio, on the basis that he would waive fees while she was in jail. He has run a high-profile, accusation- filled campaign for his client in which the British and Thai governments have been denounced in countless press releases. As a result, a seedy story of drug smuggling has been transformed into front-page news.

The girls who were to involve prime ministers and monarchs in their case were ordinary West Midland teenagers with a fondness for nightclubs when they met in 1990. Smith, from Solihull, was 18; Cahill, from Birmingham, 16. But Smith was a 'slow learner', Jakobi said in a dossier on the case. Cahill was much more intelligent and 'the dominant partner in their relationship'. The basis for this claim was that Cahill had 'several GCSEs'.

Police say that they soon got involved in petty crime: the pair still face a charge of stealing three dictaphones in June 1990. They failed to appear in court and a arrest warrant was issued. About this time, Cahill met 'Adrian', a much older man, in Birmingham's Dome nightclub. Cahill's family, and Jakobi, allege that Adrian persuaded her to go to the Far East with a friend, then beat her up when she tried to back out.

Cahill and Smith were given business-class tickets to take them from Heathrow to Bangkok to Amsterdam, then to two stops in West Africa and finally back to Gatwick. The airline saw this as a drug smugglers' route and tipped off British Customs, who warned the Thais. On 6 July the teenagers arrived in Bangkok. Their statements to the Thai police describe how Cahill had told Smith that Adrian would meet them at the airport, but he failed to show up and 'Verno', described by the girls as Chinese though he may have been Thai, introduced himself as 'Adrian's friend'. He gave Cahill 1,000 US dollars and told them to go to Chiangmai, in northern Thailand, near the drug- producing Golden Triangle.

The girls waited in vain for Adrian for six days in cafes, hotels and restaurants festooned with warnings about the drastic punishments for those involved in the Thai drugs trade. They returned to Bangkok and went to the airport, only to find they had missed their flight by 12 hours. Smith said Verno told them it would leave at midday; in fact it was midnight.

The girls moved into the Grace Hotel, a huge, sleazy establishment in central Bangkok that caters mostly for the Arab sex- tourist trade. Cahill rebooked their flights via Amsterdam to The Gambia, and on the evening of 17 July the pair ventured into the discotheque. After about 90 minutes a Chinese-looking man came to talk to Cahill. 'Mr Sone' was another 'friend of Adrian's'.

According to the girls, Mr Sone asked if they would take Adrian some biscuits and liquid soap that were not available in Africa and that he needed badly. He brought two large suitcases full of snack food, drink powder, bath gel and liquid-soap containers and cans to their room.

Police photographs taken later show an array including tins labelled as Planters Cheez Curls, Cheez Balls, Badedas bath gel, and Fa liquid soap. In her statement, Smith said she shook the food and drink cans and heard 'the sound of powder', and opened a liquid-soap bottle and saw soap. She was not suspicious.

Next evening, as they waited for their flight at the airport, overloaded with heavy luggage, officers of the Thai Narcotics Suppression Unit pounced amid the flash-guns of photographers tipped off by the Thais. In the inspection room, in front of the girls, one of the canisters was opened and a few crisps taken out to reveal a bag of white powder. A chemical test for heroin was done in front of the girls and the suitcases taken away.

In their statements, both girls said they did not know there was heroin in the cases. They were later charged with carrying 29.742kg of 88 per cent pure heroin - worth pounds 4m on the streets.

Smith was jailed for 25 years, Cahill for 18 years and nine months. Smith said she was guilty of carrying heroin but ignorant of the contents of her suitcase. The sentences were tough: a similar smuggler in Britain could expect 12 years.

Out of this series of events, Mr Jakobi and others constructed a complex conspiracy theory to show that the girls were framed and the real villains were the corrupt Thai police, British Customs, the Foreign Office, and some of the Thai lawyers involved. He has rejected the most obvious explanation - upheld by the Thai courts, British Customs and the Foreign Office - that girls who had never been abroad before took a stupid gamble and lost.

Mr Jakobi has made much of the fact that Terry Gough, the British Government chemist, raised doubts about whether the containers were big enough to hold 29kg of heroin.

But the Foreign Office pointed out that Mr Gough had emphasised that he knew nothing about the heroin found with Cahill and Smith. Evidence put to the trials and seen by the Independent on Sunday included the Thai government chemist's report and photographs of the girls with the containers, and then the containers being cut open (out of the girls' presence) to reveal the drugs. There do not appear to be any great discrepancies. Of 32 containers, 21 contained the plastic bags of powdered heroin.

Mr Jakobi seems to have been confused about the sort of containers the girls were found with. Until last month he was still claiming, for instance, that some of the 'drinks cans' were ordinary Coca-Cola cans when they were large 'family-size' iced-tea powder and Nesquik powdered- milk containers. No one recorded the capacities, but best guesses from the photographs suggest that 29kg of heroin, packed professionally, would have fitted. The Jakobi frame-up theory only works if all the evidence presented at court was faked.

Mr Jakobi, who has made one trip to Thailand, said last week that he believed some heroin was in the cases - although 'as a lawyer I would like to see evidence before I can be definite'.

A further claim has been that British Customs did not expose the 'corrupt framing of the girls' in order to ensure that colleagues in Bangkok were not embarrassed, and as a result the Government treated the pair as if they were guilty.

A senior Customs source said the accusation was 'bonkers'. Britain had no complaints about the Thais' behaviour, he said. It was perfectly reasonable to arrest Cahill and Smith at Bangkok rather than track the heroin across the world to the 'Mr Bigs' behind the deal. 'The danger of trying to follow a consignment is that you lose it on the way. The cases could have been switched in West Africa or Amsterdam and we could have ended up with pounds 4m of heroin on the market and no suspects.

'Sometimes, most times, you've got to go for the bird in the hand. In this case you also have to bear in mind that the Thais may not have been certain the girls were carrying heroin. The only way they could be sure was by arresting and searching them. It was up to them to decide what to do. It's their country.'

Customs officers are as sure as they can be that the cases would have been switched before they reached London. The 'Chinese Number 4 heroin' the pair were carrying is not widely used in Britain, but is in the United States.

A Western source in Bangkok, familiar with the case, added that he was convinced that Smith and Cahill would never have been allowed to return home if the deal had gone ahead: the girls knew the identities of, and said they would recognise, several key players in the drug ring, which is why West Midlands police interviewed them last week. The heroin would have been collected by the next 'mule' in the chain, while the two girls continued on to The Gambia - possibly never to be seen alive again.

In the end it was not the claims of a miscarriage of justice that got Cahill and Smith out of Lardyao Women's Correctional Institute, but appeals for mercy by the Prime Minister and others.

Significantly, neither Smith nor Cahill protested her innocence once safely out of Thailand. Indeed, both said in the brief interviews they gave to journalists that they had learnt their lessons.

They have returned to the prospect of big money from newspapers, although the Press Complaints Commission has warned that any payment would be in breach of the industry's code of conduct.

Mr Jakobi was last week defending their right to make as much as they could. He condemned the Foreign Office decision not to tell him about its policy of working behind the scenes for the girls' release as 'most irresponsible' and said that his campaign for Smith that had 'slayed the bastards' and led to her release.

'Karyn was framed and deserves compensation,' he said. 'Before she was out, everything was free. Now she is out, everything is for money. It is as simple as that.'

British Customs is less happy about the girls' pay day and the stream of unsubstantiated accusations against its staff. 'We're furious,' said one senior officer. 'We try our best to stem the flow of drugs and see a couple of smugglers banged away.

'What happens? There's international outcry. It sends completely the wrong message. I can't help thinking that if these two had not been young and British the reaction would have been different.'

(Photographs omitted)