From today’s Sydney Morning Herald:
The medieval price an author pays for insulting Thailand’s monarchy
From the hell of his Bangkok prison cell, the writer Harry Nicolaides reveals the horror of his daily battle to survive.
We are woken at 6 and counted in the cell. Mine is 12 metres long and just over four metres wide, holding 50 or 60 prisoners, mostly Thais, mostly murderers and rapists. The cell has one toilet, which is a hole in the ground, and poor ventilation. I sleep in a face mask because tuberculosis and pneumonia are common. I’ve been in this jail for five months, since my arrest in September.
My book, Verisimilitude, was a rather clumsy first attempt at fiction – only 50 copies were printed and seven sold. I love Thailand and respect the royal family. It was never my intention to offend anyone.
For breakfast I have soy milk and a biscuit. The prisoners wash and shave around troughs covered in grime. The water is changed once a week. Then there’s assembly. We stand to attention as the Thai flag is raised. We’re asked to pray to a large gold Buddha. I use the time to collect my thoughts and think about my loved ones.
The guards make long speeches in Thai. I imagine they’re about prison etiquette. I’m then taken upstairs with other foreigners to clean another cell block. After that we’re at leisure for a while. I used to walk around, but I can’t help but encounter the weak and the feeble – such as men with TB, languishing on benches. It deadens me. So I try to spend my time replying to the many letters I receive. Letters keep me alive.
We are allowed one 30-minute visit a day, but not on weekends or holidays. The hardest part is returning to my cell after a visit from family or friends. I break down when I think how they’re suffering.
At 12 the lunch bell rings. The food is mostly fish bones in hot water, extremely spicy, with rice. I’ve tried it and felt unwell. I can’t afford to fall sick – the mental strain is enough – so my family send me some chicken and a salad every day. There are 20 or 25 cats that run into the mess hall before the prisoners. Some men put cigarettes in the cats’ mouths or do other unspeakable things to them. I am barefoot most of my day. It is partly a security measure so we can’t climb the electrified, barbed-wire fence, and partly custom. But the floors are covered with fish bones, saliva and cat vomit, so my feet are black.
I am led to court in shackles and chains. It’s positively medieval. They’re degrading and they bruise and lacerate the ankles. They make you feel you’re guilty.
They say that it is easy to get to someone in a prison like this, so I am always on the alert. I have met some colourful characters, like Viktor Bout, the suspected Russian arms dealer. He’s an unassuming, softly spoken man. He gave me some garlic the other day – and a manuscript of his life story to edit. I haven’t looked at it yet. Lots of people give me manuscripts about their lives and cases. They seem to think I’m a BBC journalist, of all things.
At 4pm we’re locked up until 6am. My patch is about a foot wide, the length of my body. I cannot move to the left or right without pressing on another person. I cannot stretch out my legs without kicking someone.
On the king’s 81st birthday I saw fireworks in the distance. Some prisoners had tears in their eyes, praising a man they regard not just as their king but their father. I may not be Thai, but I am a son, and I know what it means to love a father. I am applying for a royal pardon. I pray the king learns of my plight so I might enjoy his grace.
When I’ve finished my chicken, Thais beg for my scraps.
The fluorescent lights stay on at night, so I sleep with a box over my head. I toss and turn on a thin mat on the hard floor. And this, too, shall pass, other foreigners tell me. It’s an old adage and true. But time passes very slowly here.
(As told to Andrew Marshall)