By Michelle Jones

More than 1 000 South Africans are "languishing in appalling conditions" behind bars in foreign countries - 65 percent of them for drug-related offences.

Of the 1 062 South Africans serving sentences abroad, 177 are in Brazil and 109 in the United Kingdom. Most of those in Brazil are on drug-related offences.

In Botswana and Peru there are 66 South Africans in jail and in Pakistan 42. Most of them jailed for drug offences.

And those are the known cases where citizens have exercised their right to request consular assistance.

The DA's shadow minister of international relations and co-operation, Kenneth Mubu, fears there may be many more South Africans imprisoned overseas that the government is unaware of. "There must be people we are not aware of. We must do some research to find out how many more people are in prisons abroad."

According to statistics made available by the Chief Directorate of Consular Services, 91 percent of women and 51 percent of men jailed abroad are serving drug-related sentences.

Locked Up In A Foreign Country, a section 21 company, was started last year to draw attention to the number of people imprisoned in foreign countries after being used to transport drugs across international borders.

Founder Belinda West started the company after a friend was arrested in Venezuela last year. "We keep in touch with families of people in prison overseas, we offer emotional support and advice about the laws of the country they are in. It affects the families and friends tremendously."

West said the going rate for a drug mule was between R20 000 and R35 000. The risks were lengthy prison sentences, "inhumane and barbaric" prison conditions and the possibility of a death sentence.

She hopes that by bringing attention to the risks, people will not be recruited to become drug mules.

"And why have I gone to such great lengths? Why has my life come to a grinding halt while I scurry back and forth to find information, help and justice? Because she is a human being and because she is my friend," West wrote on the company's website.

Patricia Gerber, the mother of Johann Gerber who is serving an 11-year sentence in Mauritius, has become involved in the company by trying to initiate a prisoner transfer agreement.

"Not a day goes past that I do not think, 'is he safe?'... and I long for my son to be nearer to home. This is traumatic for me as I feel helpless to change the situation.

"I will never understand why, when Mauritius has signed prisoner transfer agreements with other Southern African Development Community member states and Commonwealth countries and is more than willing to enter into a prisoner transfer agreement with South Africa, our government does not want to do so, even for humanitarian reasons," Gerber wrote.

Mubu lamented the absence of arrangements with other countries for a prisoners to be able to serve their sentences at home. "People serving sentences for drug dealing in South America get much harsher treatment. The conditions are appalling. If they are sentenced to 50 years in jail, they will languish behind bars for 50 years."

Brigene Young was jailed in Mauritius in 2003 for carrying a pair of shoes containing heroin.

In her plea for help she wrote: "I cannot begin to describe the conditions I have survived in over the last six years. I am suffering from depression and have had a number of panic attacks ... I seriously feel that I will not survive the rest of my conviction. I just can't do it anymore. I honestly can not take it anymore."

Mubu asked International Relations Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane in Parliament how many South Africans were in foreign prisons.

Nkoane-Mashabane said her department was aware of 1 062 South African citizens who were incarcerated abroad as on November 18.