Leading Article: Drug mules in our own jails

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The Independent Online
THE HARDER one looks at the case of the two British women who were released yesterday from jail in Bangkok, the odder the Prime Minister's intervention on their behalf seems. It remains very far from clear just how much either of the girls knew about the 66lb consignment of heroin found in their luggage at Bangkok airport. It is no less difficult to assess the extent, if any, to which they were fitted up by the Thai police.

The British Government seems to be at one with the Thai authorities in rejecting the view (espoused by the Bishop of Birmingham) that they had been framed. One of the girls, Patricia Cahill, said earlier this week: 'We were not set up by the Thai police. It's a load of rubbish' - a statement that has the ring of truth, whatever pressures may have lain behind it.

Both John Major's appeal for clemency, and the Thai king's granting of a royal pardon, were based on humanitarian grounds. Why then, it may be wondered, is the Prime Minister's compassion not aroused by the situation of the 300 or so female 'mules' who currently, at great expense to the taxpayer, account for around 20 per cent of the population of Britain's jails for women? Most are considerably more underprivileged and nave than the two British girls, and are serving sentences that average six to eight years for importing relatively small quantities of illegal drugs into this country.

Among them are approximately 300 Nigerian women, with Jamaicans, Guyanese, Americans and Colombians also prominent. Some swallowed up to 150 small packages of drugs, wrapped in clingfilm, condoms or balloons: last year two such couriers died when packages burst in their stomachs. Sentences are graduated according to the value of the drugs seized, with deterrence seemingly the main consideration.

Most of these women are profoundly ignorant of the British legal system. Many are desperate to redeem their families from debt or malnutrition: the Prime Minister would find their case histories considerably more harrowing than those of Patricia Cahill and Karyn Smith. That is not to exculpate couriers as a category. Some are fully aware of the risks they run; and crimes committed in the hope of relieving family poverty are no less serious than others with purely selfish or vicious motives.

But to be a relatively innocent link in the chain of supplying drugs to a seemingly insatiable market is different in kind from, say, burglary or inflicting grievous bodily harm. Yet the sentences imposed on such couriers are liable to be longer. In Nigeria those convicted here now face a further five-year sentence on their return, apparently for dishonouring their country's name.

Even a mainstream Conservative MP, Sir John Wheeler (now in Michael Mates's job at the Northern Ireland Office), has attacked the rigidity of these sentences and suggested that often deportation and exclusion for life would be more suitable. 'It is absurd,' he has said, 'to argue that imposing lengthy prison sentences on poverty-stricken Third World women will help stamp out the drug trade.'

Sir John is right. It is not just British women who deserve compassion.