On a blisteringly hot February morning, visitors carrying blankets, water and plastic bags loaded with food and cigarettes loiter patiently outside the gates of one of Asia's most notorious jails: Bali's Kerobokan Prison.

As they each wait for their number to be called - upon which they will file into a tin-roofed compound and sit for an hour on a straw mat with the prisoner they have come to see - an unlikely looking visitor joins the grim procession.

Neat, smartly dressed and carrying an air of purpose and middle-class respectability, Hilary Parsons looks at first glance like a tourist who has taken a wrong turn from the strip of upmarket hotels and restaurants in the nearby resort area of Seminyak. But as she chats and laughs comfortably with prison guards and inmates who greet her with smiles and friendly banter, it becomes clear that she is not here by accident.

Today, as she has done almost every day for months, Parsons set out after breakfast from her HK$200-a-night guesthouse, a five-minute walk from the jail, to be with her younger sister, Lindsay Sandiford - a 56-year-old British grandmother facing the death penalty for smuggling cocaine.

Parsons had become estranged from her sister, who left Britain to lead a nomadic life in India. Last May, the latter was caught carry-ing 5kg of cocaine, worth nearly HK$20 million, in the lining of her suitcase as she flew into Bali from Bangkok. After seeing pictures of her behind bars, Parsons gave up her job and flew to Indonesia.

Since then, they have possibly spent more time locked in earnest conversation than they had in total before Sandiford hit the headlines.

The first British woman in a decade to face the death penalty anywhere in the world, Sandiford shares a crowded, windowless cell with 13 other women in a prison that has been home to the Australian drug smugglers known as The Bali 9 and the 2002 Bali bombers. Its ironic nickname among inmates is Hotel K.

Within these walls, prisoners with money are said to be able to bribe their way to shorter sentences and buy almost any privilege imaginable, short of freedom. The drugs that land so many inmates in Hotel K are cheaper and more readily available inside than any-where else on the island.

Sandiford is as unlikely a death row convict as her sister is a prison visitor. A former legal secretary who has helped tutor fellow inmates at twice-weekly knitting classes since her arrival at Kerobokan, she co-operated with a police sting that netted other suspects following her own arrest. Claiming she only carried the cocaine because a gang threatened to kill one of her two sons if she refused, she co-operated with police in Bali and arranged to pass the drugs to the people she said set up her flight.

Sandiford was put up in a cheap hotel, to which Britons Julian Ponder, 43, and Paul Beales, 40, came to collect the drugs. The men were seized by waiting police. Ponder's partner, Rachel Dougall, 39, was also arrested.

Ponder and Dougall, who moved to Bali four years ago and lived in a HK$12,000-a-week villa in an exclusive part of the island with their young daughter, found themselves locked up in the same cramped police cells as Sandiford. Their downfall could hardly have been more spectacular. Before their arrest, the couple had been known in certain circles as the "King and Queen of Bali" because of their lavish lifestyle and their high-handed behaviour towards their household staff.

Police trumpeted their coup. Dougall had met Sandiford in Bangkok and set up the drugs run, they said. She and Ponder were believed to have been at the heart of a syndicate making huge profits by supplying cocaine to wealthy tourists on the island.

Ponder and Dougall vehemently denied the charges, claiming they had been set up and, improbably, that Ponder had picked up the packages from Sandiford believing them to be gift-wrapped presents for his daughter's sixth birthday.

As the months went by, however, key evidence was lost, the case was in stages diluted and the charges against the couple were reduced from conspiracy to traffic to less serious offences. Ponder ended up facing a single charge of possession of a small quantity of cocaine found in his villa and, on January 29, he was sentenced to six years in jail. Beales was jailed for four years for possession of hashish.

Dougall, meanwhile, was jailed for just one year for failing to report a crime - her husband's drug possession. With the time she has already spent, awaiting trial, she could walk free from Kerobokan in April. She is seeing out the final weeks of her sentence in a cell block just five doors from that of Sandiford. The immediate futures of the two women - who refuse to even look at each other when their paths cross - could hardly be more different.

Despite helping police and a prosecution recommendation that she serve 15 years, Sandiford was on January 22 sentenced to death by a Bali court. Reeling from shock in the days after the sentence was passed, she plunged into a spiral of depression that almost cost her the chance to appeal her sentence, her sister says.

Under Indonesian law, a condemned prisoner has only seven days in which to register an intention to appeal against the death penalty and if he or she fails to do so, the conviction stands. For three days, Sandiford insisted she would not contest her sentence.

"She told me she couldn't stand any more," says Parsons, speaking over soft drinks in a restaurant around the corner from the prison. "She had had enough. She couldn't stand any more of the ritual humiliation of being paraded around in the court. She just wanted to be left alone.

"She said, 'If I appeal I'm going to have to go through all that again and it is too much to bear.' In a way, I know how she felt."

Adds the sister, who has been by Sandiford's side through a succession of court appearances: "It really was truly horrific going to court. They sit and talk and talk and you don't understand a word they say. The cameramen at court push and shove and put cameras in your face and shout things. They shout, 'This is Indonesia, not England.' On one occasion, one of them stood behind us playing God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols on his mobile phone."

Parsons recalls her sister's despair the day after the death penalty was handed down: "She just told me she felt no one was paying attention to her defence case.

"It was so awful. All the girls were sitting around crying. They all have their reasons for being in jail but they are really nice girls - they are incredibly good.

"The next day we learned that a lawyer had offered to work for her on her appeal for his expenses only. We begged her to reconsider. We just told her, 'You have to appeal. You have to do it for us, for your family.' By that time she had been visited by a doctor and she was quite heavily medicated."

Smiling at the irony, she adds: "They had given her the death penalty and then they dosed her up on valium to help her cope with it.

"Lindsay wasn't saying anything. Everyone else was just crying. But she wasn't as adamant that she wouldn't appeal. She was just very quiet and subdued." Three days after her sentencing, she finally agreed to fight for her life.

Despite Sandiford's harsh punishment, Ponder showed little concern as he prepared for his own sentencing - even though his lawyer warned that the court could still revive a charge of conspiracy to traffic drugs.


"IT COULD HAPPEN," Ari Soenardi says, as he prepares for his client's moment of truth, explaining that the panel of three judges might consider convicting his client on the conspiracy charge, which has been left on file, to send out a message. "I hope there is no political influence in this case."

Striding around the visitors' room at Kerobokan jail four days before his sentencing, Ponder betrays an almost arrogant calm. "Everything's cool," he tells me, with a confident grin. "I'm going to be all right, mate."

Chatting and joking with a huddle of fellow prisoners, who pass packages and packets of cigarettes brought in by visitors between them, Ponder seems relaxed, confident and in control of his surroundings. He sends a fellow prisoner off on an errand as we speak, telling me with a sly grin: "He works for me."

The deposed King of Bali has, it seems, found a new fiefdom for himself, as King of Hotel K.

"I'm not going to get the death penalty," says Ponder, with a laugh. "I'm only being done for possession of 26 grams. I'm not being done for trafficking. Everything's fine."

The surreal atmosphere of Hotel K envelops us. Two prisoners are having sex with visiting girlfriends or wives against a wall, with only jackets and blankets disguising the fact, as prison guards gaze nonchalantly on. In a far corner of the visiting room, chatting to a woman visitor, sits Dougall, sporting bright leggings with a Union Jack pattern and multicoloured pumps, her hair tied back.

After my conversation with Ponder, I sit down to join her. She speaks dreamily of her release and how she plans to fly home to Britain to be reunited with her daughter, Kitty, who is being cared for by her maternal grandparents. Mentally, it seems, Dougall has already checked out of Hotel K.

A friend of Dougall tells me later: "Kitty is the most important thing in Rachel's life. But in spite of everything that's happened, she's going to return to Bali with Kitty. Bali is her home now. She's done nothing wrong and has no reason to stay away. She has plans for a fashion business here and wants Kitty to be able to visit her father in prison."

Since her arrest, Dougall has insisted she was set up by Sandiford. She told her friend: "When I heard [Sandiford] had got the death penalty, I just thought, 'That's karma.'"


WRITER KATHRYN BONELLA, a regular visitor to Kerobokan and the author of a book on Bali's drugs scene, Snowing in Bali, says the run Sandiford attempted would normally secure a payment of about HK$80,000 for the mule.

"Only about 10 per cent of people coming in with drugs get busted," says Bonella. "It is a risk but if there is only a 10 per cent chance of getting caught, those are pretty good odds."

For those who do get caught, sentences often depend on how much money they can afford to pay through lawyers, who are referred to as "negotiators". "People have paid well over US$100,000 to have their sentences cut," says Bonella. "Indonesia is always in the lists of the most corrupt countries in the world, usually in the top five. There is no surprise it happens in the judiciary."

Indonesian police often lure suspects into taking part in sting operations in return for lower sentences or an escape from prosecution, but rarely honour the promises they make to the "snitch", she adds.

"I know of one Brazilian guy who snitched and it backfired. He got a much heavier sentence and is now on death row. The dealer he snitched on told me they had paid and put pressure on the powers that be to give him a tough sentence. I said, 'They listen to you?' and he said, 'Yes, absolutely.' The sentence was their payback."

Asked if Sandiford might have been the victim of retribution for having co-operated in a police sting, Bonella says: "She is now facing a death sentence and years of living in hell looking down a dark tunnel towards a firing squad. The people she snitched on and worked against probably think she has got punishment enough."

Money will determine the kind of life Sandiford leads while she remains locked up in Hotel K, however long that may be.

"Money is king there," says Bonella. "To live any sort of half-decent life as a Westerner, you need money. You need to pay for your own bedding, toilet paper and soap. You can't survive on the food that is provided. It is pebble-hard rice and slop. Money can buy you all sorts of things; it can buy you a more comfortable cell. Lindsay is in the women's block, which is massively overcrowded."

For Ponder, with his apparent reserves of cash, the outlook is likely to be considerably brighter. "Like any hotel, he can pay for a room upgrade," says Bonella, "and room service, such as having meals from his favourite restaurants delivered to his cell by guards - as well as drugs and alcohol delivered. He can pay local prisoners to renovate his cell, bring in a bed, television, DVDs and hire locals to massage his feet, do his washing, clean his cell - even possibly get out of jail, to ostensibly go to the dentist, but instead go to a private villa.

"There was one kingpin drug dealer who had an en-suite bathroom added to his cell, by knocking down a communal wall, and a Bose sound system installed."

It is unlikely that Parsons, who has spent more than HK$120,000 of her own money supporting her sister and helping her fight the death penalty, will be able to fund such luxuries. Instead, she is pin-ning her hopes on justice to take her sister off death row and is rely-ing on public donations through a website she has set up (www.lindsaysandifordbalideathappeal.com) just to pay the expenses of the Jakarta-based lawyer who is working with no fee to fight her appeal.

By May, Sandiford should know whether her appeal has succeeded or failed. But for both the convicted drug mule and her sister, this journey has already been a transformational one.

The sisters had been estranged for seven years after a falling out over the legal secretarial business they ran together in Cheltenham, western England. "When I saw the pictures [in the British press] of her looking so pitiful, it broke my heart and I knew I had to go to her [in Bali]," says Parsons. "My family has been very understanding. They know it's something I had to do. They'd have been surprised if I hadn't gone."

Asked if she believes her sister's story about being forced to work as a mule because of threats to her son, she admits she has not questioned Sandiford closely about her involvement.

"Lindsay apologises all the time. She tells me, 'I'm sorry you have to deal with this - I'm sorry we're in this mess.'"

For Parsons, thousands of miles from home in a situation she could surely never have imagined finding herself in, it is the people inside Kerobokan who appear to have been the biggest surprise.

"What has been so heartening is that everyone in the prison has been really, really nice to her since this happened, from the governor down. Everyone is so shocked at this sentence," she says.

"I've never been in a place quite like Kerobokan before. I spent Christmas Day inside the prison having a party with Lindsay and her fellow inmates, and it was just amazing. The people there are extraordinarily kind.

"It isn't the hellhole people make it out to be."


Insider trading

Hotel K is a prison in which money can buy almost any privilege imaginable and where sex and drugs are traded openly with the collaboration of guards, according to an expert on the jail.

Kathryn Bonella, whose 2009 book Hotel Kerobokan exposed rampant corruption within the prison, recounts how guards rent out offices for sex between prisoners or arrange for prostitutes to visit at US$110 a time. Drugs are so cheap and easily available inside that customers come to buy from prisoners in the visiting room, Bonella claims. At one stage, an ecstasy factory was operating within the jail, she says.

"It's the drug capital of Bali. Police aren't allowed inside, so it's safer to do drugs in there than outside."

In her book she writes: "Most inmates were on drugs charges and incarcerating them in Hotel K was like sending a gambler to Vegas."

One inmate she interviewed recounted how on one New Year's Eve, the jail was like a "big discotheque".

"Everyone's cell was open until the night after - 24 hours," the inmate said. "You can just walk everywhere. You can smoke joints, take ecstasy - everything. It was crazy."

Hotel Kerobokan tells how, in 2007, the prison's head of security was jailed for four years after having run drugs in and out of the prison for 14 months.

Prisoners with money can buy a comfortable life not just for themselves but for fellow inmates, Bonella writes, recounting the case of a millionaire yachtsman who gave cell mates a taste of the high life when he served a three-month stretch for having unregistered guns on his boat.

A fellow inmate is quoted as saying: "He paid a guard to go to his boat often and bring him the stuff; bring him wine and whisky and filet mignon steak, spare ribs, lamb chops, prawns etc, and give it away.

"He had some excellent wine. We had all the good stuff. He spoiled us. If there was ever a gentleman behind bars, it was him."


Red Door News Hong Kong