No one knows better than Kay Danes what hell is like. The Australian experienced 11 months of it inside the Phonthong detention center in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, back in 2001 after she and her husband, Kerry, were arrested at the border for stealing sapphires. “They were so evil,” she tells The Daily Beast by telephone from Brisbane.
Danes remembers watching five young African men being tortured in plain sight of the other prisoners. They were first beaten with a tire iron, and then the guards rubbed chili powder on their welts. She still remembers the screams of one man as his genitals were burned with a Bic lighter.
If she cries rape her trial will be delayed until after she has given birth—when she would again face the death penalty.
After she and others complained about the abuse, the next torture victims had their mouths covered with gaffer tape to stifle their screams. “No one comes out of there the same as they went in,” Danes says of the notorious prison. “No one comes out innocent.”
There is little doubt in Danes’ mind that Samantha Orobator is enduring similar horrors. The 20-year-old Briton has been held at Phonthong since she was arrested August 6, 2008, at Wattay Airport in Vientiane. The police say they found 1.5 pounds of heroin in her luggage they believe she was attempting to smuggle into the U.K.—a crime automatically punishable by firing squad execution under Laotian law. Now, nine months after her arrest, Orobator is finally going to trial, but she won’t be given the death penalty. Orobator is five months pregnant, and in Laos they don’t execute expectant mothers.
But there is a catch: Orobator can escape death only if she testifies that she wasn’t raped in prison. According to Laos government spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing, rape “is impossible because the prison in Phonthong is specially created for women prisoners. Even the guards are all ladies.”
But that’s not what Danes and others who have been imprisoned in Phonthong say. The prison houses both male and female prisoners, and male guards are omnipresent in the women’s areas. Danes says the women’s cells are separated from the men’s by a single wire fence, and that when she was there male prisoners with trustee status were tasked with guarding the female inmates while the real guards got drunk.
Others who have served time in Phonthong report that men try to coerce the female prisoners into having sex. In some cases, the men promise the female inmates that pregnancy will save their lives, as may well be the case with Orobator.
The young Briton has written a letter saying she was not raped and that she did not have sex while in prison, which leaves the conception unexplained. But news reports out of Laos say the letter was likely written under duress and that she has been told she must also testify that she was not molested. If she cries rape, her trial will be delayed until after she has given birth—when she will again face the death penalty. “She will tell the court, otherwise she will stay here,” Nuanthasing told reporters in Laos. “It’s a mystery—maybe it is a baby from the sky.”
Orobator has been given a local lawyer, but in the Daneses’ experience that could prove a trap. “We were given a local lawyer, but he only tried to get us to sign a paper admitting guilt,” recalls Danes, who has written a book, Standing Ground, about her experience. “Samantha is not going to get a fair trial. In Laos, they don’t know what fair is.”
Eventually, Australian government pressure on the Laos government secured the couple’s release, but not without a long battle. The Daneses were working for a security firm and adamantly deny the smuggling charge.
Last week Anna Morris, a lawyer for the human rights group Reprieve, was allowed to meet Orobator for the first time after several cancellations, although the meeting was attended by 10 government officials. Morris said the young woman was “clearly nervous” and that the two were not given any privacy, which made it impossible for Morris to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the drug charges and Orobator’s pregnancy.
She still does not know Orobator’s response to the allegations of smuggling. A Laotian official told Reprieve that Orobator was pregnant when she was arrested in August, but had miscarried after treating a vaginal infection.
Morris says she is concerned about the young woman’s emotional and physical health. Danes recalls that inmates were given a bowl of pig-fat water soup and 250 grams of white rice a day, hardly enough to sustain a healthy pregnancy. “We hope that the Laotian government does not delay matters further,” Morris said after she met Orobator. “This is clearly putting a lot of undue stress on Samantha during her pregnancy.”
The British government has been told it will be given 48 hours’ advance notice before the trial begins, though it is unclear whether any foreign nationals will be able to attend. A Reprieve spokesman called the Laotian judicial system “a farce.”
Orobator’s Nigerian-born mother, Jane, recently flew to Laos from Dublin to be near her daughter for the trial. She has seen her daughter twice, and issued this statement: “I am grateful to the Laos authorities for allowing me to visit my daughter. She told me that she was not raped or sexually assaulted in prison and that the father of her unborn child is not a Lao prison official.”
Then she wrote, “I hope that Samantha can now quickly have a fair trial and that she will be able to come home before too long.” Jane stresses that Orobator has no history of drug use, and no criminal record. “This is every mother’s worst nightmare,” she told reporters before she left Dublin. “When I do get to see her I will hug her and tell her I love her.”
Both Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have issued reports describing the Laos prison as “harsh and occasionally life threatening.” Last week Britain and Laos signed an agreement that would allow Orobator to serve her sentence in the U.K. if convicted, but the Laotian government will have to ratify that agreement before Orobator could be moved. And with the baby due September 6, time is running out. “She’s in a very vulnerable position both physically and emotionally,” says Danes. “As they say in Laos, ‘She’s like sugar cane in the elephant’s mouth.’”
Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.