The most expensive bananas in Thailand

Despite the best efforts of his jailers, Behnam Moafi, an Iranian-Swede born in Tehran in 1968, refuses to die.He is serving a 22-year sentence in a Thai prison for extortion, blackmail and armed robbery — a crime, according to Fair Trials International, he did not commit.

After eight years of abuse, torture, hunger, solitary confinement, malnutrition, illness and conditions that would push lesser men into insanity, Benny, as he is known to the inmates of Klong Prem Prison, has earned a Thai law degree and learned to play a traditional Thai musical instrument. Preparing his own cases, he has also launched over 130 legal actions against prison officials, police officers and lawyers.

Through several changes of government, a political coup d’état, and great social upheaval, Benny has learned a great deal about Thailand. Indeed many of its dissidents, former leaders and ruling elite have ended up in his prison cell.This month, he lodged a request to have his case re-heard, taking advantage of an obscure loophole in the Thai penal code that allows for this type of review only once in ten years.

Benny has faced far worse odds and has nothing to lose. However, if the ruling is handed down in his favour, several officers of Thailand’s revered judiciary, senior government bureaucrats and the Bangkok-based, foreign chanceries of several different countries will be shamed before the world community.

Benny Moafi was arrested by Thai police on 14 September 2000. He was implicated in allegedly beating, robbing and kidnapping a Syrian national in the room of a Bangkok hotel. In an effort to help two Iranian families in a dispute with a third man, Benny found himself accused of using a gun to rob and intimidate the Syrian national.Relying solely on the testimony of the Syrian, the court found Benny guilty of charges including possession of a handgun. Strangely, the Syrian waited 14 days after the alleged crime before lodging his complaint, and longer before he revised his statement to include the gun.

While Benny is currently at Minburi Special Prison, a detention centre on the outskirts of Bangkok, over the last eight years he has served time in more than six different prisons and 17 different compounds. He has been transferred every time he exposed corruption or abuse in the prison system.

He also campaigned for the rights and privileges of other prisoners. His most recent challenge to the director of Bangkok Remand Prison over the extortionate price of bananas sold to inmates saw him swiftly banished to the smaller, isolated correctional outpost in Minburi. This has not stopped Benny from continuing to write his letters to the NGOs and human rights organisations he hopes will one day help him.

Sabine Zanker, head of the legal team of Fair Trials International, always looks forward to hearing from Benny. ‘His letters are always a pleasure to read. He is upbeat even in the darkest hours, resourceful, knowledgeable and won’t be intimidated. While working on his own case, he has also always an open ear for his fellow prisoners and stands up against the authorities on their behalf.

‘During my eight and a half years here at Fair Trails Abroad I have seen a number of people who have risen to the occasion, and he has shown strength of character, dignity and compassion during most difficult times. Benny is a prime example of somebody whom prison made an even better person.’

While Benny has shown great humanity and compassion towards others, the same cannot be said about his own government. Sadly, the Swedish embassy has so far shown little sympathy towards his plight. Indeed they have never attended his hearings.Lucia Trenkler, a Swedish lawyer who is in close contact with the people looking into his case said, ‘Swedish authorities are making great efforts to help Benny, but the final decision must be made on the Thai side.’ For Benny it seems Thailand has already made its decision and Sweden has forgotten him.

The inmates on death row in Klong Prem Prison remember Benny well. Contrary to the UN’s International Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners, leg-irons and chains are typically used for restraint and punishment in Thai prisons. By submitting an appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court on behalf of several prisoners, Benny was successful in having the chains removed.

Benny is also well known to the judiciary of Bangkok’s criminal courts. Summoned to a court appearance he was, as is the local custom, ordered to remove his shoes and socks before entering the courtroom. Despite threats and intimidation from court officials Benny resisted. He was eventually forced to remove them.Standing before the judge he made an impassioned plea in Thai asking the judge if he was considered a human being. The judge, impressed by Benny’s eloquence and his command of the Thai language, made an exception and allowed him to put his shoes back on. After this precedent hundreds of other prisoners did the same.

But Benny has had little luck in having his own case reviewed on appeal. He notes that in the Thai legal system you are guilty until proven innocent. In the hearings to date he has been thwarted by long delays, endless postponements and, as reported by Fair Trials International in their own independent investigation, dubious findings.

His efforts to have his case heard have also been hampered because the witnesses that could corroborate his story returned to Iran shortly after the alleged crime took place. His Thai lawyer, Mr Worasit Piriyawiboon (who has dedicated himself to exposing what he firmly believes is the wrongful conviction of an innocent man), recently travelled to Tehran to have statements made by the witnesses.These affidavits, finally validated by Iran’s foreign ministry, have now been submitted with other documents to support the current request for a re-trial in Thailand.

It has been a long journey for Benny. He has come to know the system well. ‘In this system, you pay the police and you are gone. If you don’t pay the police, you pay the prosecutor. If not, you will have to buy the judges and lawyers. Those with no money are sentenced and sent to the monkey house where they pay the custodians of the prison. The most expensive bananas sold in the whole kingdom of Thailand are those sold in prison.’

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