Nolubabalo Nobanda, the 23-year-old Grahamstown woman arrested in Bangkok after customs officials allegedly discovered 1.5kg of cocaine in her dreadlocks, should plead guilty to avoid the possibility of a tough sentence, says convicted drug smuggler Vanessa Goosen.
Goosen, 38, a former Miss SA finalist who spent 16 years in a Thai jail for drug smuggling and was released a year ago, says she still has nightmares and flashbacks and is seeing a psychologist to help her cope.
Goosen, who lives in Joburg, maintained her innocence. She pleaded guilty two years after she was arrested to escape the death penalty and encouraged Nobanda to do the same.
“I am alive today because, as much as it pained me, I pleaded guilty. But the wake-up call was the execution of another prisoner in 1996 after she refused to plead guilty. She was killed by a firing squad. That terrified me.
“It convinced me to admit to a crime I did not do. I was framed but it was the only way to escape possible execution.”
An international legal firm has said that only heroin qualified perpetrators for the death penalty. Cocaine is a schedule two drug in Thailand, so Nobanda faces either a 20-year or a life sentence.
Goosen was pregnant when arrested on April 17, 1994, at Bangkok airport with 2.7kg of heroin hidden in hollowed-out books in her luggage. She maintained she was framed by the father of her child.
She gave birth in Lard Yao Prison to Felicia, who was fostered by an old school friend in Joburg.
“Nolubabalo will have a tough time. No one speaks English. This is terrifying because you cannot understand anything.
“She will be taken to the local police station where new prisoners are kept in a filthy, dark basement for up to seven days. There is no mattress or pillows, just the cold floors.”
Goosen said after the seven days, Nobanda would be taken to court where she would be asked to plead.
“At court the language barrier is a problem. I signed stacks of paperwork that was in a foreign language. I could not understand a word.”
After court, prisoners were transported in a truck to the prison.
“Here the real hell starts. You are stripped naked. Violated in every possible way as a doctor, assisted by prisoners, searches your entire body for drugs. All your possessions are taken away. In the end all you are left with is a prison uniform.”
Food, toiletries and water are not freely available and Nobanda would have to pay for these items.
“People judge. But, some of us are innocent. We were either set up, ignorant of what was really happening or just did it for the money. Whatever the case, I want to caution youngsters not to fall for promises of exotic holidays and cash bonuses,” Goosen said.
“The risk is not worth it. The trauma of being imprisoned will kill you or scar you for life. Mine was a hard lesson but I hope the experience will put me in a position to assist others in a similar predicament.”