Downfall of Britons mainly drug-linked: Martin Whitfield reports on why 2,500 nationals are in prisons overseas or awaiting trial Martin Whitfield looks at why 2,500 nationals are in prisons overseas or awaiting trial

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The Independent Online
DRUGS and drug-dealing are the main reasons why up to 2,500 Britons are locked in foreign jails. Involvement in drug-related crime is responsible for a third of all arrests and charges. Those convicted often face long prison sentences.

The Foreign Office has no accurate figures of the numbers of British nationals in prisons overseas but estimates that it is approximately the same as the 2,500 arrested and charged in any one year.

Other offences resulting in imprisonment range from drunkenness, serious motoring convictions and fraud to violent crime and murder.

The proportion of drug-related offences varies widely from country to country, according to their proximity to drug-smuggling routes. Drug-related crime represents 63 per cent of all charges in France but only 15 per cent in Greece.

Prisoners Abroad, a charity that helps those in foreign jails, is assisting 819 prisoners imprisoned in 62 countries. Keith Best, its director, knows there are hundreds more. 'There must be many who don't want their consul to know and also a large number who do not have the opportunity to contact the consul,' he said.

The first question most prisoners ask is about the charges they face and the criminal justice system of the country in which they have been imprisoned. Getting legal advice for an adequate defence can become a major problem, particularly where there are language difficulties.

More than half those in touch with Prisoners Abroad have been charged or convicted on drug-related offences, the vast majority involving 'soft' drugs.

A third of Britons arrested in Spain last year were trying to smuggle drugs from north Africa. Many prisoners are held on remand with 42 per cent of those in jail awaiting trial.

Foreign Office efforts to secure early release are conducted quietly, although several cases, such as the imprisonment in Iraq of Paul Ride, Michael Wainwright and Simon Dunn for allegedly entering the country illegally, have attracted widespread publicity.

Long sentences are common for those in foreign prisons. More than half those convicted have been given prison terms in excess of five years, while 50 prisoners are serving life sentences.

Prisoners with longer sentences have the option, under the Repatriation of Offenders Act, of applying to serve their time in Britain.

However, Prisoners Abroad said that the process is complicated and can take a minimum of 12 months to complete. Only about a dozen prisoners have successfully made a transfer since the Act was introduced in 1984.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: TOP TEN FOREIGN PRISONS FOR BRITONS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Country Number 1 France 208 2 Spain 139 3 United States 117 4 Germany 31 5 Thailand 26 Belgium 26 7 Ireland 24 8 Greece 23 9 Canada 21 10 Portugal 18 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Offences and alleged offences Per cent ----------------------------------------------------------------- Class 'A' drugs 13 Class 'B' drugs 41 Fraud 8 Murder 6 Violent crime 5 Property crimes/theft 4 Sexual offences 2 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Prisoners Abroad -----------------------------------------------------------------

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