Running out of time on death row in Bali

British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford has few options left as she tries to avoid the firing squad for trafficking 4.8kg of cocaine to Bali

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 3:45am

In her cell on death row in Bali, Indonesia, a 56-year-old grandmother sits on a thin mattress and - in sweltering 35 degrees Celsius heat - knits elaborate jumpers and cardigans to send to relatives and friends in Britain.

Sentenced to death in January for smuggling 4.8kg of cocaine, worth more than HK$19 million, in the lining of her suitcase on a flight from Bangkok to Bali last May, Lindsay Sandiford is the unlikeliest of drug mules.

A stocky, blunt-speaking former legal secretary from the north of England, she would look more at home eating ice cream by the seaside in Britain than playing a deadly bit part in the high-stakes cocaine world of Bali.

As she slowly stitches neat patterns in her cell, however, time is quickly running out for her to escape the firing squad.

Her appeal against the death penalty was rejected on April 8 and her family and supporters are frantically trying to raise the HK$95,000 needed for Sandiford to take her case one step further to the Supreme Court in Jakarta.

By yesterday - the day her appeal was lodged - only about two-thirds of the money needed to fund it had been raised, all of it through a Just Giving online appeal set up by well-wishers. The British government has refused to fund her appeals and won a High Court case in London on Monday that would have forced it to do so.

The plight of this incongruous drug smuggler has provoked an outcry from Britain where the Foreign Office, while refusing to fund her appeals, and a former top prosecutor have criticised the death penalty she received as unnecessarily harsh.

They don't condone what she did. What makes her case unusual, they argue, is that after her arrest she co-operated with officials and took part in a police sting operation to catch people higher up in the drug syndicate.

In most jurisdictions, co-operating with officials to catch bigger fish in a drug-smuggling syndicate earns offenders a measure of mitigation when it comes to sentencing - but not in Indonesia, it seems, and certainly not in the case of Sandiford.

While she was given the death sentence, her co-accused - three Britons and an Indian - received sentences ranging from one to six years' jail after charges of trafficking were replaced with possession and failing to report a crime.

To make matters worse, Sandiford - who claims she smuggled the cocaine only because a drugs gang threatened the lives of her two sons if she refused - has been put in the same prison as the suspects she informed on: Bali's notoriously harsh Kerobokan prison.

At least two of them - Julian Ponder, 43, and Paul Beale, 40, jailed for six and four years respectively for possessing drugs - have issued death threats to Sandiford behind bars, she claims.

Sandiford - speaking through an intermediary - insisted: "I don't want any sympathy. What I did was wrong and I should be punished for it. But I co-operated with the police, and I should get the lowest sentence. Legally, morally - any way you look at it, it is just wrong.

"When I co-operated with the police, they told me I was going into witness protection and that Interpol would look after my boys. They lied to me. Telling the truth doesn't help here because you just get the death penalty. I helped the Indonesian police. The next person who gets caught isn't going to say anything."

The ruling by the Bali High Court rejecting Sandiford's appeal cites the fact she was involved in an international drug smuggling operation with other expatriates as a reason for upholding the death penalty, but makes no mention of the light sentences for co-conspirators.

In a cruel twist, Sandiford's family in Britain learnt of the rejection of her appeal on television breakfast news before she or her lawyer knew, thanks to the decision being leaked by court officials to local journalists.

"The whole world knew before I knew," she said. "I got a message from one of my sons saying, 'They are all b******s'. I replied, 'What are you on about?' and he said, 'Haven't your heard, mum?'

"When I spoke to him, he was crying his heart out and my family was distraught. It was all over the morning news in the UK but no one had thought to tell me."

When I spoke to him, he was crying his heart out and my family was distraught. It was all over the morning news in the UK but no one had thought to tell me

Later the same day, the news was confirmed in a brutally frank text message from the British embassy's representative in Bali that read: "I have to bring bad news. Your appeal has been refused by the Bali High Court. They confirmed it when I made a call to them this afternoon. FYI, it's all over the news."

The lonely scene at Kerobokan prison where Sandiford heard the news that took her a step closer to the firing squad was in stark contrast to the chaos in the district court in Denpasar in January when the judge handed down the death sentence.

Recalling the day, Sandiford described how people around her appeared to be more upset and shocked than she was. "The judge read out the decision in Indonesian and my translator didn't tell me what the sentence was. I thought I had got 15 years [the prosecution's recommendation]," she said. "There were newspaper reports afterwards saying that I cried and that I shouted, 'No, no, no' when the sentence was delivered. In fact, it was the prosecutor who was crying and it was my sister Hilary who shouted out 'No, no, no'.

"As I went out of the court, the prosecutor had his arm around me and he was pushing reporters away and he kept saying 'I'm so sorry'. It was a BBC reporter who told me I had the death penalty.

"It was only later on that I thought 'How did that happen?'

In the days after the initial sentence, Sandiford was prescribed valium and sleeping pills. "What I couldn't stand was the look on people's faces," she said. "Nobody could look at me and no one knew what to say to me.

"I wanted someone to make a joke. That's what I really wanted. But people had no idea what to say, or they would say completely the wrong thing."

Sandiford initially decided she would not appeal, saying she could not face appearing in court again. She eventually agreed after her family pleaded with her.

"The court is like a circus. It's ritual humiliation. I really did not want to appeal. I explained to my younger son and he said, 'Please mum don't do that'. After we talked he said, 'I want you to appeal but I'll support you whatever you think is best'."

When the appeal court decision was announced, Sandiford was again offered medication but refused it. "Even though they want to medicate me I don't want it," she said. "I can't sleep. I get flashbacks. I have anxiety and panic attacks and depression. I have good days and bad days.

"But I'm trying to find a way to deal with it and a way to deal with it is, if you feel the pain you know you're still here. If you don't feel anything, that's the time to worry. I don't want to go into that fog - that tablet dependency where you don't feel anything."

Sandiford's family and supporters continue to scramble for funds to pay for her Supreme Court appeal in Jakarta. If that fails, her only hope is to make a plea for presidential clemency.

She has refused an offer by her sister Hilary, who has already given up her job and spent tens of thousands of dollars supporting her, to sell her family house to fund the appeal, but is hopeful other donors will come forward.

Describing how it felt to be under sentence of death, Sandiford said: "It feels surreal. It feels like it isn't me. I know what it is and I know what the consequences are. They will take me out and shoot me one day. That's what they're going to do."

Sandiford is convinced her co-accused got reduced charges and light sentences because they paid officials through their lawyers - a widespread and well-documented practice in the Indonesian courts system.

However, because she had no money, she says she never had the chance to pay her way out.

"What upsets me most of all is that I feel it's just not fair," she said. "I know nothing in life is fair, but when you go to a court of law you do at last expect there to be some justice and there wasn't any. There was no justice."

Sandiford, whose first grandchild was born in December, maintains that she never smuggled drugs before and agreed to carry the cocaine to Bali only after her sons' lives were threatened by the drugs gang.

"Given the circumstances I was in, I would make the same decisions," she said. "My sons could be in jail or they could be in the ground. I couldn't go to the police and say there was a drugs gang threatening to kill my sons. They wouldn't have listened

"I'm ready to face the death sentence if that's what's waiting for me. My only regret is not seeing my baby granddaughter and not getting to know her."

Sandiford wards off her darker moods with gallows humour, saying: "Maybe I should knit a stepladder or a parachute." Asked what gift she would like brought on a prison visit, she replied: "Marlboro Lights, dark chocolate, Band Aid plasters and a Cherokee helicopter with inflight service."

The friendship of fellow inmates and kindness of prison guards has been a source of strength, she said. "The girls in the women's block and the prison officers are very shocked at what has happened to me and have been incredibly kind. They have allowed me to have a proper mattress and a chair. One of the prisoners even made me a chair because of my arthritis."

Being under sentence of death and having time on her hands has forced her to think about her situation, she said. "Lots of people ponder about life and death and God and there are no clear answers of course. That's the truth of it," she said.

"My philosophy is that if there is a God, I hope he will know I was a half-decent person who never tried to do anyone any harm. If there isn't, I will know I am and that for me is enough … if I had to go through this all again, I would make the same choices."

Sandiford said she feared her appeal was doomed because the judges would not want to embarrass Indonesia by overturning the lower courts' decision in such a high-profile case.

"They are never going to let me go. I am a political pawn now. I know that," she said.

In an open letter written ahead of Monday's High Court case in London when the anti-death penalty group Reprieve tried unsuccessfully to force the British government to fund her legal battle, Sandiford was characteristically blunt.

"I know I have been stupid. I want to say sorry for what I have done … I am totally humiliated.

"I have been told the government's position … [is] that I or my supporters must raise the funds for my defence, and that the longer I am on death row the more time I have in which to do this.

"The minister who said that, Alistair Burt, lives in cloud cuckoo land. My family has done all they possibly can to support me and nobody could ask anyone to do more.

"I myself am knitting a jumper than I will try to auction to raise money, but that's not going to go far."

"I know there are some people who think I should die in this prison cell. If I should die - and I hope I don't, but I fear I may - then I hope my execution will prompt the British government to do more for others."