Having spent ten years working on countless cases of foreigners in trouble in foreign justice system the case of Amanda Knox is just another day.
For every Amanda Knox there is a name you will never hear, many of them Australian, travellers in a far off land who did or did not break the law and found themselves in jail. These are places you wouldn’t wish on your own enemy, with conditions from a nightmare, guards from a horror movie and sentences that will never end. For the period of time I worked on the Knox case it was not my most interesting, but a beautiful girl will always get more press than any other.
Australian’s travel, unlike their counter parts from the US, young Australian’s in particular really travel to the four corners of the globe and while many are armed with knowledge of the nation’s they are about to visit nobody is prepared for what follows when the law comes calling. Not only is the traveler in for a tough ride their families are often left reeling from the news and unarmed to take on the long challenge that awaits them. This is where many critical mistakes are made. You wont be bailed out, mum and dad can’t visit you for an hour and the lawyer you get will be the name you prefer given to you on a single page paper list handed to you by a consular official.
By this stage the damage could already be done. Take Amanda Knox, by this time she had made a false statement and implicated an innocent man in a murder she would spend the next fours years trying to prove she didn’t commit. Others have set off a shit storm making allegations of police abuse, cover ups or attempted bribes gone wrong. You cannot prove your innocence in the first 48hours. But you can almost certainly put a whole country offside by your actions in that time. Once you have a nickname like the Ganja Queen (Corby) or Foxy Knoxy (Knox) you’ve damaged your public appearance beyond repair. This is when the traveller and their family, frightened and unaware of what is happening need to make the most important decisions in the process.
Hire your own lawyer, the best money can buy in the country you’ve been arrested. This is not a time to go with the cheap and cheerful. You can pay off debt until you are 65, can you serve that time in prison? Find a good lawyer in Australia, many will act pro bono and can contact people with the right experience for the country of detention. And immediately call your local, federal, member for Parliament. They wont do much, they will say they cannot interfere with the “judicial processes of a foreign country” but when you have been beaten black and blue and DFAT is still telling your family you are in “good health” they may just be your best friend. Do all of this straight away, too many families contact me after they have lost at trial making the whole process that much harder.
Don’t start a political controversy! You can’t be found guilty in the court of public opinion in Australia and go to jail for it, but you better believe you can in many foreign countries. Start screaming at the fences about corrupt judges, dodgy politics and it “not being like Australia” and you will soon find yourself looking at a 20 year sentence for a crime that would have got you a month back home – just ask Schapelle Corby.
In the Knox case there were calls from her supporters, including high profile individuals, to have the case heard in a US court despite the crime being in Italy. Endless criticism of the Italian justice system, accusations of police brutality and the suggestion that the prosecutor was a mad member of the occult. Some of this may or may not be true, it really doesn’t matter. The message is that you see them as substandard and they will counter that with your guilt and a long sentence. These complaints should all be directed through your lawyers and not the media.
Which brings me to of course to, the media! They will offer to publicise your story, free you from your horror and fly your parents all the way from Braidwood to Bangkok. You think they do this out of the kindness of their heart or because your case some how touched them? No, this is the hope of an often junior journalist hoping you might give them their first cover and a book deal. Many a career has been built on the miserable tale of a “foreign prisoner”, they know who they are. Tell the media ONLY what you would want the world including your jailers and the court to know, the rest is not for their ears.
Establish a support network, both in the country of arrest and at home in Australia. What nobody will tell you, but you’ll learn very fast is that three square meals a day simply doesn’t occur in a foreign prison. You will need money for food and someone to bring you fresh food when they can. You’ll need a constant flow of medical supplies and toiletries, including your own dental cement. Your family at home will also need a support network, they will spend night and day, plus most of their life earnings freeing you.
Before you go anywhere take a small amount of time to learn the laws of the land and especially those that you could easily stumble foul of without really knowing. Many countries have laws you’ve never heard of and for things you wouldn’t consider that bad, but if they do, they are! Don’t take drugs, don’t involve yourself in political protests in unstable countries and don’t insult authority figures. Finally persist, even if you are innocent, just like Amanda Knox, you can still find yourself serving a number of years in prison. This is not fair but it is a reality of what happens when someone is arrested overseas.
The lesson is simple, for all the young people who travel abroad, some will find themselves in prison. The first response from all involved will greatly impact just how long that painful period will last. And for too many years Australia has been ignorant to the reality of many of it’s travellers.
*This is not legal advice, but the observations from working on these cases for a decade*