16-year hell in a Thai jail

goosen Vanessa Goosen

Former Miss South Africa finalist Vanessa Goosen is seeing a psychologist to help her deal with recurring nightmares and flashbacks of the hell she endured for 16 years in a Thai jail for drug smuggling.

One year after her release, Goosen used her experience to describe the the trauma of Nolubabalo Nobanda, who was arrested at a Bangkok airport this week for allegedly carrying 1.5kg of cocaine in her dreadlocks.

Goosen, 38, who now lives in Johannesburg, maintained her innocence throughout. She pleaded guilty two years after she was arrested to escape the death penalty and encouraged Nobanda to do the same.

“I am alive today because, as much as it pained me, I pleaded guilty. But the wake-up call was the execution of another prisoner in 1996 after she refused to plead guilty. She was killed by a firing squad. That terrified me.

“It convinced me to admit to a crime I did not do. I was framed, but it was the only way to escape possible execution.”

Goosen was pregnant when she was arrested on April 17, 1994, at the Bangkok airport with 2.7kg of heroin hidden in hollowed-out books in her luggage. She said she was framed by the father of her child, who was born in Lard Yao Prison and fostered by a school friend in Johannesburg.

Goosen’s sentence of 35 years was reduced to 30 in 1997, when the Thai king, in celebration of 50 years on the throne, granted all Thai prisoners a five-year reduction. The sentence was later reduced to 25 years.

“Nolubabalo will have a tough time. No-one speaks English. The police and the warders only speak their mother tongue. This is terrifying because you cannot understand anything.

“She will be taken to the local police station where new prisoners are kept in a filthy, dark basement for up to seven days. There is no mattress or pillows, just the cold floors. Most times the food is contaminated.”

Goosen claimed the policemen were also very forward and loved “touching women prisoners”.

“At court the language barrier is also a problem. I signed stacks of paperwork that was in Siamese. I could not understand a word.”

Prisoners were then taken to the prison where “the real hell starts”.

“You are stripped naked. Violated in every possible way as a doctor, assisted by prisoners, search your entire body for drugs. All your possessions are taken away. All you are left with is a prison uniform.”

Nobanda would have to pay for food, toiletries and water.

“Nothing is free. If you don’t have money, you starve. I hope Nolubabalo gets cash from her family.”

“Our government does not have a prisoner transfer treaty with countries like Thailand and China. Their hands are also tied because the offenders are tried by the laws of the country they are arrested in.”

Goosen said new prisoners found it hard to adjust and suffered severe mental torture at the hands of the authorities and veteran prisoners.

“It’s one year since I am home. But, I am still adjusting to normal life. I had to get used to using a cellphone and other technology.

Moody, emotional and angry, that is how Goosen feels most days.

“In August I suffered a breakdown and had to seek professional help. I have nightmares and flashbacks about my 16 years of hell. I wish I could wave a magic wand and erase all the pain and hurt from my mind.”

According to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, 619 South Africans are in prisons abroad for drug smuggling. Twelve are in Thailand prisons.

She said Nobanda’s arrest and the execution of Janice Linden in China had made her determined to talk about her ordeal.

“People judge. But some of us are innocent. We were either set up, ignorant of what was really happening or just did it for the money. Whatever the case, I want to caution youngsters not to fall for promises of exotic holidays and cash bonuses.

“The risk is not worth it. ”


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