Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Day in the Prison Life of Harry Nicolaides

Harry Nicolaides, the Australian author who has been imprisoned in a Thai jail talks to Andrew Marshall.about his conditions in prison [via Facebook] :
We’re woken at 6 and counted in the cell. Mine is 40ft long and 15ft wide, holding 50 or 60 prisoners, mostly Thais, mostly murderers and rapists. The cell has one toilet, which is a hole in the ground, and poor ventilation. I sleep in a face mask because tuberculosis and pneumonia are common. I’ve been in this jail for five months now since my arrest last September.

My book, Verisimilitude, was a rather clumsy first attempt at fiction — only 50 copies were printed, and seven sold. I love Thailand and respect the royal family. It was never my intention to offend anyone. I didn’t think what I wrote constituted lese-majesty. I’m an Australian who came to Thailand five years ago, and the passage in my book [alluding to the “romantic entanglements and intrigues” of the Thai monarchy] is no different from things I’ve heard Thai people say over and over again with impunity.

For breakfast I have a small carton of soya milk and a biscuit. Then the prisoners wash and shave around large troughs covered in mould and grime. The water’s changed once a week. Then there’s assembly. We stand to attention as the Thai flag is raised.

We’re asked to sit and pray to a large gold Buddha. I use the time to collect my thoughts and think about my loved ones. Then the guards subject us to long speeches in Thai. I imagine they’re about prison etiquette.

I’m taken upstairs with other foreigners to clean another cell block. Then we’re at leisure for a while. I used to walk around, but I can’t help but encounter the weak and the feeble — like men with TB, languishing on benches. It deadens me. So I try to spend my time replying to the many letters I receive. Letters keep me alive.

We are allowed one 30-minute visit a day, but not on weekends or holidays. The hardest part is walking back to my cell after a visit from family or friends. I break down when I think how they’re suffering.

At 12 the lunch bell rings. The food’s mostly fish bones in hot water, extremely spicy, with rice. I’ve tried it and felt unwell. I can’t afford to fall sick — the mental strain is enough — so my family send me some chicken and a salad every day. It arrives at about 2. There are 20 or 25 cats, who run into the mess hall before the prisoners. Some men put cigarettes in the cats’ mouths or do other unspeakable things to them. For others the cats are a source of comfort in a place full of bitter, twisted people and feelings.

I’m barefoot 80% of my day. It’s partly a security measure so we can’t leap over the electrified, barbed-wire fence, and partly Thai custom. But the floors are covered with fish bones, saliva and cat vomit, so the soles of my feet are black.

I am led to court in shackles and chains. It’s positively medieval. They’re degrading and they bruise and lacerate the ankles. They make you feel you’re guilty.

They say that it’s easy to get to someone in a prison like this, so I’m always on the alert. I’ve met some colourful characters, like Viktor Bout, the suspected Russian arms dealer. He’s an unassuming, softly spoken man. He gave me some garlic the other day — and a manuscript of his life story to edit.

I haven’t looked at it yet. Lots of people give me manuscripts about their lives and cases. They’ve misunderstood that I’m a BBC journalist, of all things.

At 4pm we’re locked in the cells until 6am. That’s a very long time. My patch is about a foot wide, the length of my body. I cannot move to the left or right without pressing on another person. I cannot stretch out my legs without kicking someone.

On the king’s 81st birthday I saw fireworks in the distance. Some Thai prisoners had tears in their eyes, praising a man they regard not just as their king but their father. I may not be a subject of Thailand, but I am a son, and I know what it means to love a father. I’m applying for a royal pardon. I pray the king learns of my plight so I might enjoy his grace, as all his subjects do.

We must make our own provision for dinner. When I’ve finished my chicken, Thais beg for my scraps. The fluorescent lights stay on at night, so I sleep with a cardboard box over my head. I toss and turn on a thin mat on the hard floor. “And this too shall pass,” other foreigners tell me. It’s an old adage and true. But time passes very slowly here.
A blog for the campaign to bring Harry home can be found here with links to the petition.


Anonymous said...

why is it that whenever a westerner is caught breaking the law in an Asian country, they're treated like they're innocent? campaign to free them lah, letter-writing to bring them home lah.

same thing with the kid who vandalised public property in Singapore, the numerous men and women caught with drugs in Malaysia and other countries, and so many other cases.

what is this double standard?

bibliobibuli said...

there isn't. this is a blog about books and authors. choose your own campaign and make the effort to blog that.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Maybe because where we come from we're innocent until proven guilty! And even if proven guilty, what is this man's crime? Vandalism, drugs -- hardly! He self published a novel and only a minor part, one passage, was deemed offensive and he had even tried to seek approval for it. Earlier it was speculated that he was seeking publicity for a future book deal. I jumped on that bandwagon too, but I do think, I was very wrong to think that or even to be misled by what others thought, and perhaps I misled others who read what I wrote. What he is going through is a crime! Had he commited vandalism, drug smuggling then he has earned himself a prison sentence; even then, under the conditions that he described? No way! But he did not commit a crime, though he is guilty, perhaps, of a vague offense writing what is common knowledge in Thailand. He could have been more prudent; personally when I write about Malaysia, I know who not to offend. I had been advised by others; I am a guest of this country. He is a guest of Thailand. He is guilty of using poor judgement, which we all do from time to time. He does not deserve to be in prison and to undergo the way he is being treated. Please put yourself in his position before you pass judgement and start generalizing about westerners and lumping their crimes together. The prisons are full of such people who've done incredibly stupid things, like vandalism, smuggling crimes, and scamming people. He is not in this category. He could be any one of us using poor judgement on this very blog or our own blogs. We've all offended now and then, to larger or smaller degrees, whether western or Malaysian, haven't we? And if any of us do get arrested, including you anonymous, I hope Sharon also suggests a letter campaign to get us (and you) out of prison.

bibliobibuli said...

oh yes, agree completely Robert.

and actually, i did write about a thai author charged under the same law did i not? and i have written about other non-western writers who are persecuted for what they have written.

Anonymous said...

Bob, he knew the laws and he broke them. Ignorantia juris neminem excusat.

Anonymous -

Bob is right. They're not "treated" as innocent, it's just that they think their laws should apply to all countries. When they find out it's not, they like to make a fuss.

Anyway, it looks like his PR campaign might have worked, who knows?