Five years is too long

When your brother's in a Chinese detention centre

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  • Published 20190806
  • ISBN: 9781925773798
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IN APRIL 2015, the Australian media is awash with stories of Australians in international prisons for drug trafficking. The death penalty is a hot topic of conversation. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will be executed in Indonesia in a matter of days. When your brother is among the stories being reported, you trawl the articles for information, clues into what is going on. You look for common details in the cases and compare legal jurisdictions. You search for something that might tell you why they did it – and why he did it, too. Tony was detained in March 2014 and formally charged in October; the verdict was handed down in April 2015. It made headlines: ‘Life or death for SA jockey in China.’

The hype that surrounds these stories is strong. But you wish for the media attention to go away – you wish for it all to go away. You stop answering unknown calls; you stop talking about it with friends and colleagues. They inevitably ask that question – the one about guilt. It’s the question you can’t answer, you don’t want to answer. Just in case you get it wrong. Your other brother complains about the media hounding him and his family, and when the journalist from the local paper calls again, he says no and hopes this is the last time they will bother him.

In June 2014, Bengali Sherrif and Ibrahim Jalloh are arrested in Guangzhou, and by December of that year, so too are Kalynda Davis, Peter Gardiner and Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto. At home, it’s all you can talk about. Whenever someone else gets arrested, there is a flurry of phone calls between family members; text messages fly back and forth asking about the details of the new case. You ask each other if it bears any resemblance to your brother’s case. If you can use this set of circumstances to make sense of it.

You send a care package. The Foreign Prisoners Abroad website has a list of items that might be of use: notepaper, envelopes, lip balm, antiseptic cream, toothpaste. You post your package to the Department of Foreign Affairs. They send it to Guangzhou, and it gets taken to the detention centre. It is never seen again.

The detention centre does not allow care packages. Nor will they accept the warm clothes you send. They don’t allow phone calls either, so you decide to write.

You ask your family what to say – what did you write? You find out they didn’t write. They don’t know what to say.

Dear Tony, I hope you are well.

Did you do it?

The weather is fine here.

You fill the letter with details of the media reports and home life, and who won the cricket. You sign it off with the words stay strong.

As Tony’s case drags on, your family’s conversations about it are less frequent. Every time an Australian Consulate official visits Tony at the detention centre, you receive a report, and every time, there is the same final note on his current legal status: …sentenced to a suspended death penalty and seizure of all personal property. Appeal lodged to the Guangdong High Court on 26 June 2015, a hearing for which was conducted on 17 May 2016. The verdict hearing will be held at a later date. Every time, your other brother jokes cynically about the copy-and-paste nature of the report. As you all wait for the final verdict to be delivered, it is no longer the first thing you talk about – it is the last. ‘Oh, and have you heard from Tony?’

In November 2016, you plan your first visit. It’s been years since you’ve seen Tony, long before he went to China. On the drive back from Number Three Detention Centre, you wonder why you’d never thought about how hard it is to hug someone whose hands are cuffed.

In February 2019, you make your second visit to Guangzhou, and when people ask you say it’s a research trip for a book you’re writing. You try to keep your heart out of it and convince yourself that you’ll be fine. Your visit is organised and preapproved by the detention centre. Your visit coincides with Xi Jinping’s annual address to the nation, and Tony’s fifth year in detention. Tony looks smaller, thinner, greyer. He tells you he is looking forward to change and lists the pros and cons of moving from the detention centre to prison. Top on his list of pros is that they have beds in prison. There are no cons to coming home.

The Australian Prisoners Abroad website says that three Australians are arrested overseas every day. The Department of Foreign Affairs Consular State of Play report says that 1,540 people were arrested in 2017–18, and there were 386 prisoners. Not all these cases make the news – but if any of these people were found with cocaine in their headphones, methamphetamines in their handbags or heroin strapped to their bodies, they are likely to appear on the front page.

Australia laps up these stories. We buy the books published from those returned – Hicks, Corby, Fellows, Longford and Brennan. We read the articles: ‘Corby applies for dole.’ We delve into the past, searching for an explanation to account for the guilt of those arrested, or answers to the questions of how and why. We follow them through their incredibly difficult return to society. If they do make it home, their main support must come from family. There are no parole provisions or re-entry support groups specifically for people who have experienced foreign imprisonment. Being in prison for any length of time creates issues that can take many years and lots of support to overcome; being in a foreign prison adds complexity in terms of language, culture and separation from family.

You have read The Damage Done by Warren Fellows (Pan Macmillan, 1997) and Deliver Us from Evil by Kay Danes (Crown Content, 2002). You juxtapose the images these books present of prisons in South East Asia with your imaginings of Chinese prisons. You envisage them as stark and lit by fluorescent lights, not a single, dim, swinging globe. Cement floors and plumbing, not pounded dirt and open drains. Prisoners sitting in rows, backs straight, legs crossed, for hours, not chained by the ankle to a dark-grey cave wall. You know that the detention centre is fiercely controlled by head prisoners and guards. The routine is highly disciplined, and each year during New Year celebrations, inmates get a duck leg and a niángāo (rice cake). But mostly it’s rice and watery stock.

THROUGHOUT THIS WHOLE mess you purposefully try to avoid media scrutiny, although your other brother still receives calls from journalists. But you know that once a verdict is reached, the headlines will be back. Visions of Renae Lawrence’s return to Australia haunt your sleep. Cameras and questions being shot and shouted in her face. Will Tony answer questions if he’s shouted at in the same manner? Or will he stare with exhausted eyes towards his destination, the car that will allow his escape from the pack? Will he to try to remain impassive while being polite and giving nothing, to not cause a sensation? Will he understand that he is the sensation? Will the media have retreated by then, uninterested?

When Tony’s verdict is first published in the press, your sister warns you not to read the comment sections on the news sites. She says she found one that hurt her more than the others. You look for the comment your sister mentioned; as you scroll, you ask yourself why you can’t take her word for it and get out of there. But the urge to see it for yourself is too strong, and you hope the process will give you some insight into your family’s responses.

Stupid idiot! HANG HIM!

Bring on the death penalty! Imagine what would have happened if that meth hit our streets!

Drugs traffickers deserve to DIE!

There should be a mandatory sentence for stupid.

You learn that you should only delve into the comments when you are feeling resilient. You find the one you are looking for and it hits you, as it did your sister, right in the heart.

Where are his family? Why didn’t they stop him?

It’s a good question.

Where were we?

That question sits inside you. You twist it and turn it and sometimes the knot that forms is too much to bear. Sometimes, you let it slip from your mind. Until someone else gets arrested and is slashed across the news, or it’s time to write again. Both events keep coming around.

When you have a family member or friend with an addiction, life gets hard. It gets chaotic. It gets painful. The family is often the first to close the door on their loved one. It’s a tactic of painful self-preservation. You cannot help anymore; it hurts too much to see them like this; it hurts too much to keep giving, watching them fall further and further into an abyss. It causes too much grief, anxiety, fear. It’s too much. By the time someone ends up in prison, their family is usually exhausted by them. That’s where we were when Tony was arrested.

TO UNDERSTAND HOW Tony became so lost and caught up in the world of international drug trafficking, you read through a year’s worth of his emails. You put the pieces of a puzzle together that is so ludicrous it beggars belief. You find out that Tony was corresponding with different scammers and sent money to Sri Lanka, Moscow and Ivory Coast. He was waiting to be paid. You can read the desperation in his response to a scammer who wrote to tell him the promised payment had been delayed, again – but if Tony sent one thousand dollars via Western Union Transfer, the money would be unlocked. You think of the scammers who pursued Tony. They confused, befriended and isolated him, and in 2014, just over twelve months after the first email, Tony had nothing left.

When Cassie Sainsbury is arrested in 2017, you watch the stories unfold in the news. You read each article holding your breath. Family relationships, work history, misdemeanours – you think about Tony’s life: what skeletons could they find?

A news article published on 25 December 2017 stops you in your tracks: ‘17 Australians celebrating Christmas in jail overseas – and one on the run.’ You scroll through with interest in who made the list, and intense fear that maybe Tony is on it. He isn’t. You can’t imagine who would be interested in a list like that except for the families involved. Someone else’s wrongdoings, someone else’s entrapment, someone else’s problems.

You reach out to Stephen Kenny, the Adelaide lawyer who has been involved with most of the cases you see in the news. You need to talk to someone who might understand what is going on, someone who might know a bit more about the Chinese legal system. He can’t help with that. But he has stories: he tells you about the others, and how they do not need media attention. Yet. He must work it all out, talk to the families, the lawyers in the country of arrest, consider the jurisdictions. He tells you that media attention is deliberate and can put pressure in the right places. He tells you he fought to keep the Hicks case in the news. He tells you he sued the United States government. He tells you he spoke with Terry Hicks every morning before the press and cameras arrived. He tells you the story behind the Sainsbury case and how he worked for the family. He tells you five years in detention is too long.

You realise you should probably have known that the media attention is deliberate – a manipulation of the tools at our fingertips. Even though a media scrum at the airport is better than life in Kerobokan Prison, it still doesn’t sit right. Nothing about this does.

YOU KNOW THAT Tony only gets to speak in English for thirty minutes a month when the Australian consular officer visits. You know that he has been moved to and from a variety of cells, each crowded, each with different cell leaders. Every move requires a day or so for Tony to understand the pecking order. You know the prisoners all sleep on a mat that lies on the floor across the length of the cell. You know Tony has recently been moved to a cell with seventeen others, a few of whom speak English. He lets them do some of his crosswords and read the books you have sent. You know that, somewhere in the world, there is a Taiwanese man who has recently been released from detention in Guangzhou, has read a lot of Dan Brown novels and doesn’t mind the odd sudoku puzzle. You think about the years of training it takes for media professionals to be comfortable in front of a camera. You read about the damaging effects years in detention can have and know that for those released, even the simplest conversation is confronting, let alone the onslaught that Renae and others have received.

AS YOU PREPARE for your second visit at the beginning of 2019, you wonder what to write in the ‘reasons for travel’ section of the visa application. You check your luggage, again, to see if there are any unrecognisable parcels in there. On the way through the airport, you worry whether your anxiety will make you look like you have something to hide.

This time, you are allowed to see Tony twice. It’s a long way to come for a couple of thirty-minute meetings. On the way home, you are exhausted and emotional; you are asked to wait when you enter Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. The glass sliding doors close behind you and, along with four others, you are held in a small area cordoned off with orange tape. Two officers wave wands over your coats and baggage. This happens again at check-in and again while you wait in line at passport control. You wonder if this is a new system of checking, or if it was in place when Tony came through in 2014. You feel guilty and nervous, despite knowing you have nothing to hide. The more you try to relax, the more you think you are incriminating yourself. You are related to a convicted drug trafficker – can those detector wands work that out?

You never ask yourself the question about guilt. You try to push the very thought of it out of your mind. You want with all your heart for Tony not to have known what was in those suitcases. You believe his story about being scammed, but was there a point when he worked it out? In his first correspondence after the arrest, he asked your other brother to check his bank account for the funds that should have been deposited. You realise that in order to traffic drugs across continents, Tony needed to be groomed. It would have taken years. A scammer’s or groomer’s first task is to distance the victim from their support networks. It’s an age-old technique popular in romance and advance-fee scams.

In their book Cyber Frauds, Scams and their Victims (Routledge, 2007), Mark Button and Cassandra Cross write that the revolution in communication has created huge opportunities to perpetuate old frauds on an industrial scale. The internet has improved our access to the world while giving opportunistic criminals a global playing field that has created a new breed of scampreneurs. Having access to millions of email addresses while sitting in an internet café or your home opens up far easier ways to make fast money than any of the more traditional methods; it’s a numbers game, and robbing the local petrol station or using the postal service for a lottery scam doesn’t compare with the rewards an online advance-fee fraud can deliver. When gambling is a way of life, the scammer and the scammed are both criminal and victim. The lines are blurred, and when the promise of easy money crosses the path of a gambler, odds are the response will be yes, okay, I’ll do it.

Weeks after your return from China, a letter arrives, via DFAT, from Tony, and you open it with an equal mix of apprehension and anticipation. He has been moved again, to cell E12, and it has no air-conditioning – but it has hot water, which he is grateful for. There are fifteen others in this cell, none of whom speak English. Five years is too long.

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About the author

Luisa Redford

Luisa Redford is a writer specialising in memoir and autobiography. She spent 2017 studying with Writers SA, completing her manuscript and honing her creative...

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