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Free at last: Longest-serving farang at ‘Bangkok Hilton’ is checking out

Like most prisons, Bang Kwang Central reeks of decay. But the fetidness of the “Bangkok Hilton”, as it is known by inmates, is more indicative of the soul of the place than the damp edifices that contain the men. Built in the 1930s to hold 3500, the maximum security prison in Thailand’s biggest city now houses about 8000 inmates, who have been sentenced to more than 25 years each, as well as hundreds awaiting the outcome of their pending appeals, or execution.

Leg irons provide a means of status identification: new inmates wear theirs for the first three months, whereas those on death row have their shackles permanently welded on. Fates are determined by will or whim — a royal birthday here, a public holiday there. The stroke of a monarch’s pen determines who shall live, die or be released. And in the interim both the panacea for and consequence of not knowing is insanity: the inmate’s survival guide.

At the time of his arrest for heroin trafficking, South African Alexander (Shani) Krebs was 34 years old. Initially condemned to death, his sentence was commuted to 100 then 40 years. He has not spent a nano-second in a democratic South Africa, having been arrested a day before the elections in 1994. Over the years he earned the tragic reputation of being the longest-serving farang, or foreigner, in Bang Kwang.

But on December 5 Thailand’s monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, benevolently issued an amnesty of sorts, courtesy of his birthday, to all farangs convicted of drug offences. In Thailand the seventh cycle, or 84th birthday, is a significant milestone for the monarchy and special celebrations are organised for the entire year.

For the foreign inmates it means that one-sixth of their sentences has been reduced. For prisoners incarcerated since 1994, like Krebs, it signals an early release. Although most of the 11 convicted South African drug mules in Thailand have been incarcerated for more than 15 years, it is unclear who else will be released with Krebs. And South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation is not providing answers. What is certain, according to his family, is that Krebs will be released on April 22 — eerily, almost 18 years to the day of his arrest.

On Facebook, where a 751-strong support group was established in 2008, Krebs’s friends have been relentlessly posting messages of support and daily marking the countdown.
“Shani, only 56 days to go … every day gets brighter. x,” writes Sue. “Support our friend in the last steps to victory,” says Erwin. There are psychedelic artworks and photo-shopped collages of Krebs on an aeroplane, Krebs giving the thumbs-up, Krebs reunited with his family in Johannesburg.

“We wanted Shani to see how much he has been missed and how his loved ones are literally counting the days till he returns,” said his sister, Joan Sacks. Since 1994 she has campaigned tirelessly for his release and kept him updated through letters and the occasional five-minute phone calls permitted by the Bang Kwang authorities. Sacks has also set up a website through which prints of his paintings — Krebs became an accomplished artist during his incarceration — can be bought.

Arrested in Thailand
Meeting him in 2009, through a double layer of bars, wire and glass, was akin to staring at the portrait of Dorian Gray. His curly hair had remained youthfully long, his body ripped and his face — from a distance, at least — seemed protected from the ravages of age that cleave creases, folds and furrows into the rest of us. He was 49 years old.

Krebs wore a crisp white T-shirt and immaculately pressed blue trousers. He had been up most of the night, he said, copiously preparing notes for our first interview. He was charming and cheerful. He refused to divulge details of his incarceration — the agonising months in solitary confinement, the daily drudge of prison life, the creeping despair that all he might ever do in his life was time. He made no mention of the sweat-soaked bodies crammed into cells measuring six metres by four metres, forced to sleep spoon-like, or the pungency of the open sewerage system, or the cesspool of disease that is Bang Kwang.

Instead, he focused on “the positives”. He talked about how he had coached the prison soccer team, organised uniform sponsorship through friends in South Africa and successfully lobbied for sewage-free water. He quipped that he had a favourite patch of turf for tanning, which he called “Hollywood”.

He also spoke lovingly of his Swiss girlfriend, Elizabeth Kramer Grimm, with whom he had enjoyed the intimacy of exactly one “contact” visit during their three-year relationship. They met during one of her pilgrimages to Bangkok’s prisons as part of a Christian ministry and, she coyly confessed to me in 2009, the friendship had blossomed into love. Her family was based in Bangkok and she would make the 90-minute pilgrimage by Skytrain and ferry to visit him twice a week for an hour at a time. She brought him treats permitted by the prison; he painted portraits of her.

Their exchanges bore an intensity heightened through the absence of broader contexts, reference points and histories that usually mould relationships. She was his source of succour — his voice to and from a world from which he had been locked out. And she was determined, on his release, to eventually join him in South Africa.

Longevity had earned Krebs senior ranking in the inmate hierarchy, which meant that the junior inmates cooked and cleaned for him. And his entirely self-taught artistic prowess had further elevated his status. His portraits of subjects, which ranged from Madiba and Louis Armstrong to sultry nudes, had been his salvation, he said, as had his Jewish faith.
He spoke of imaginary art exhibition openings, poetry readings, books to write, projects to complete. When I asked why he did not use his art to document his experience behind bars, he said: “I live this reality every day. I don’t want my art to depict it but rather to transcend it.”

His story carried a familiar refrain: in Thailand on vacation, surrounded by the paradoxical fast foods of sex and drugs that are legally prohibited in Thailand but available on every street corner, with one proviso: “Don’t get caught!” He was holed up in a dodgy backpackers, where his travellers cheques were stolen, he said. He was stranded, desperate. A member of the Nigerian community living in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok offered him a way to make a quick, relatively low-risk buck. The next thing he knew, he was in Bang Kwang.
Raised in “the Arc” — the Arcadia Jewish Children’s Home in Johannesburg — because his Hungarian mother could not afford to take care of him, Krebs’s youth seems to have been lived on the peripheries of both belonging and purpose.

“Back in South Africa I was wild and living on the edge,” he said. “Being incarcerated probably saved my life.” Yet, when I inquired about his ailing mother, who was then 84 years old and whom he had not seen since 1994, his voice faltered and, face contorted by grief, he wept.

Special Assignment
I had been sent by SABC’s Special Assignment to do a story on South Africans convicted of drug trafficking in Thailand. It was a harrowing assignment, not least of all because of the burly female wardens who body-searched me with a tad too much alacrity. Most of the 12 South African prisoners had been incarcerated in Bangkok for well over a decade, yet were still delicately hanging on to gossamer threads of hope. I had none to give.

South Africa remains one of three countries — with Ghana and Nepal — that will not sign a prisoner transfer treaty that would enable its citizens, after spending a portion of their sentence in the country in which they were convicted, to be repatriated to serve the remainder of their time in their homeland. Without this agreement they are doomed to remain incarcerated in a foreign country, far from their loved ones, isolated and often forced to endure horrific conditions.

And they are, it seems, forgotten by the state. Repeated Mail & Guardian requests to the spokesperson of the department of international relations, Clayson Monyela, for more information about the Thailand amnesty for South African citizens went unanswered.

But the question is: Should we even care? The litany of reports on South Africans being nabbed overseas, with their cocaine-caked dreadlocks, crystal meth strapped to their chests and heroin bullets in their bowels, do not engender sympathy for drug mules. “Do the crime, do the time” is a recurring refrain.

But even recreational drug users — anyone who has smoked dagga, shnarfed a line of cocaine, imbibed an ecstacy tablet — form an inextricable synapse in the narcotics chain of command. It stretches from the producers — usually peasant farmers — to the global drug cartels and middlemen or dealers and is distributed worldwide by the most disposable component of this billion-dollar trade, namely the mules. The syndicates recruit several mules at a time to carry varying quantities of narcotics. They designate one or two as decoys or “sacrifices” who can be arrested by airport customs after a tip-off from the syndicates.

“Usually the ones with the smallest amounts get nabbed,” said Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist based in Thailand, who is an internationally renowned expert on the global narcotics trade. “The numbers look good for the Thai government’s war on drugs and the risk factor is profitable for syndicates because the higher price of the drugs is maintained.”

The mules may be judged guilty of moral turpitude, naivety, desperation or greed. But there are some who should probably be classified not as perpetrators of drug trafficking, but as victims of human trafficking, according to the International Organisation on Migration’s criteria for trafficking, which includes coercion or trickery, transportation and exploitation.

“South Africa is sacrificing its citizens on the altar of diplomatic and trade relations with countries such as Thailand,” said Zimbabwe-born human rights lawyer Sabelo Sibanda, who worked for the Legal Resource Centre in Johannesburg until 2009. “And organisations like the Organisation on Migration are in an invidious position because they have relations with South Africa and with Thailand and they don’t want to incur the ire of either government in the countries where they are based.”

Take the case of Thando Pendu who, at the age of 23, was busted at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport with heroin strapped to her body like a suicide bomber. She was caught in October 2008, three months before my trip to Thailand. I visited her in prison and secretly recorded our conversation with a spy camera concealed in my hair.

She had been promised a job driving ambulances in Bangkok — a patently ludicrous offer, as anyone who has ever negotiated the gauntlet through Bangkok’s kamikaze drivers will confirm. Anyone, that is, except a naive young woman from the township, who had not completed high school, let alone left the country.

When she landed in Thailand she was informed that, to pay back the “loan” for her ticket, she would have to smuggle narcotics into China. Escape was impossible, she insisted, because she was constantly under surveillance by a syndicate member. She could not swallow the condoms and so the stash was bound crudely to her chest and stuffed in her vagina. Bangkok customs officials had been tipped off before she even entered the aeroplane and, while she was being stripped of her illicit cargo, four other South African mules who had been coerced by the same syndicate slipped through on their flight to China, undetected.

“In Pendu’s case she was obviously a liability to the syndicate,” said Sibanda. “So they had two options — either dispose of her permanently or the kinder option of setting her up.”

Pendu had given me the names and contact numbers of the syndicate member who had recruited her in Welkom’s Thabong township. When I returned to South Africa, I was able to confirm her allegations and I covertly filmed and confronted the South African woman who tricked her into becoming a mule. The evidence was handed to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in the Free State, as well as to Interpol. But Pendu’s fate had already been sealed: 25 years in prison, with no recourse to appeal or a retrial. Three years later, the prosecuting authority has made no progress with the evidence.

The woman who coerced Pendu still lives in Thabong. She was never arrested or questioned, whereas the lives of Pendu — who remains in Bangkok’s Lard Yao Prison — and her impoverished family have been shattered. Her mother, Nozukile Pendu, a single parent, is unemployed. She is not proficient in English and cannot decipher South African legal argot, let alone the complexities of the Thai criminal justice system. Nevertheless, she laid a charge against the woman who lured her daughter and, in my presence, was extensively interviewed by NPA prosecutor Charmaine Labuschagne.

But when I contacted Labuschagne on February 16 for yet another update on the investigation, one of several calls since 2009, she told me that although the case had been handed to the special investigation unit in Welkom in 2010, her hands were tied until and unless an arrest was made. My calls to the Welkom office have yielded nothing. There seems no record of any case against the alleged syndicate member.

The future
“They have forgotten my child because she is nothing to them,” Nozukile Pendu said in isiXhosa when I visited her in 2010, Thando’s younger sister, Sipo, translating. “She is not rich or powerful, so they don’t care. I have prayed that she will come home soon. But now I am losing hope.”

Until I informed her by telephone, she was unaware that a sixth of her daughter’s sentence had been lopped off. If her sentence is reduced further, Pendu could be returning home before 2030, as opposed to 2034 the original date of her release. But this is cold comfort for a parent who will never have the means to visit her daughter in prison. Therein lies the harshest punishment for the families of drug mules incarcerated abroad: unremitting helplessness and despair.

“At first I thought it would be better for Shani to die, rather than remain behind bars in a foreign country for the rest of his life,” said Sacks, Krebs’s sister. “Since his incarceration I haven’t been able to be a proper mother or wife. Most of my energy has been spent trying to get him released or attempting not to crumble from sheer heartbreak.”
Yet Krebs never gave up. “The one thing he was determined to do was to never learn Thai, because that would have been tantamount to giving up.” She smiled ruefully. “But eventually he had to.”

Since 1994 Sacks has lobbied support for his release, contacting politicians, clerics and the Jewish community. In 1998 she even drafted a prison transfer agreement with the director of the then department of foreign affairs’s former directorate for South East Asia, Robert McBride. But Jackie Selebi, who was then the director general of the ministry of foreign affairs, dismissed it, said Sacks, whose account has been corroborated by a former staffer at the ministry in Pretoria. So Sacks travelled to Thailand for an audience with the king in 1999 to beg for a royal pardon.

“They asked me if I had the support of the Mbeki government at the time,” she said. “I said no. That was it. Pointless.”

Now Sacks will finally see her brother. “My mother has hung in for so long; we all have. And now, the relief and exhaustion of knowing he will soon be home is indescribable. But we cannot thank [the department] for their efforts because either they don’t know or don’t care.”

A 53-year-old Krebs should be home before the end of next month. He will return to a country he will barely recognise, to a family that has been waiting for his return for nearly two decades and to a life for which he is ill-prepared. Recent photographs reveal a face with which time has finally caught up: hair still long, body still ripped, but the face is gaunt, the expression hooded. And the eyes have aged, evoking the torment of a punishment that, many will argue, far exceeded his crime.

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