Paedophile targeted 2,000 victims then sold horrifying footage in boxsets


A perverted blackmailer and paedophile targeted almost 2,000 victims and got them to commit horrifying online sexual offences he later sold in boxsets.

Abdul-Habib Elahi, from Birmingham, imitated being a stockbroker during his never-ending exploits, blackmailed victims into committing abuse on themselves or others and the sold the footage as boxsets to other offenders.

Some of his victims were as young as eight-months-old, reports Birmingham Live.

26-year-old Elahi had previously admitted to 158 offences including blackmail, disclosing personal photos, distributing indecent photographs, causing a child to engage in sexual activity, fraud, possessing pornography, inciting the sexual exploitation of a child, and possessing more than 65,000 indecent images of children – including the disturbing images of babies being raped.

The terrorising offences were committed between January 1 2017 and and August 7 2020,

Up to today there had been a ban on reporting his pleas which was lifted by a judge at Birmingham Crown Court.

Another defendant, Kirsty Nicholls, 35, from Middlesex, who knew Elahi from a sugar daddy website, had previously pleaded guilty to two charges of sexual assault of a child and one of making an indecent photo.

Elahi and Nicholls will be sentenced on September 9 and 10 at Birmingham Crown Court.



Abdul-Habib Elahi and Kirsty Nicholls

Elahi provided online ‘master classes’ on the encrypted Telegram app to other offenders teaching them how to blackmail victims and obtain indecent images from children without being caught.

He operated by pretending to be a stockbroker or rich businessman on ‘sugar daddy’ websites.

He singled out victims who were in debt or too young to legitimately be on the sites and tricked victims into sending him naked or partially clothed images of themselves. He also targeted some victims on social media.

He promised payment of thousands of pounds for posed images and sent fake screenshots of money leaving his account in similar transactions to convince victims.

An investigation by the National Crime Agency revealed there were at least 196 victims in the UK and that he had contacted at least 600 people online in the UK

He had also tried to contact 1,367 women in the United States and there were also victims in 20 other countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

As soon as possible, Elahi moved victims onto WhatsApp and away from the websites he met them on.

When he received enough revealing images he threatened to expose the pictures to the victims’ families and friends unless they sent more.

Some of the victims were so terrified they felt they had no choice but to comply.

He systematically categorised all the abuse within cloud storage sites.

He then sold the content as ‘box sets’ through the cloud and via the encrypted app Telegram making more than £25,000.

That resulted in further misery for the victims, with their family and friends becoming aware, and often with more offenders trying to blackmail them again.

National Crime Agency officers arrested unemployed Elahi on 19 December 2018 following an allegation he was blackmailing a 15-year-old girl in America. His mobile phone and computers were seized and forensically examined.

Tony Cook, NCA Head of CSA operations, said: “The investigation team have been horrified by Elahi’s sadistic depravity and stunned by the industrial scale of his worldwide offending.

“Elahi sought sexual gratification from having power and control of his victims and he’s displayed zero empathy for them.

“He often goaded them to the point of wanting to kill themselves.

“The long-term effects on the victims in this case will continue throughout the rest of their lives.

“I commend the victims for their bravery and I urge anyone who is being abused online to report it. There is help available.

“Sadly there are very many offenders like Elahi who mask their real identities with convincing personas to exploit both children and adults.

“I urge parents to speak with their children about who they communicate with online and what they share.

“People need to understand these offences can happen to anyone.

“Our investigation has sparked a series of other inquiries into Elahi’s associates and there is ongoing work to bring others to justice.”

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Former NSW Labor official and Catholic priest Peter Hansen admits to exploiting dozens of child sex abuse victims


A former Catholic priest has admitted to a judge he exploited vulnerable children in poor Asian countries, after pleading guilty to dozens of child sexual offences.

Peter Andrew Hansen was arrested in October 2018 at Sydney Airport on his way back from Vietnam.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers conducted a search warrant at his home in Cabramatta in Sydney’s south-west.

The 63-year-old has admitted to more than 30 offences, including possessing and distributing child exploitation material and sexual intercourse with children.

Peter Hansen in Hai Phong, in north-east Vietnam in July, 2017.(

Facebook: Supplied

)

The NSW District Court has heard the offending took place in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Hansen, a former Labor Party branch secretary who has been in prison since his arrest, today told the court he feels both ashamed and guilty and often thinks about his victims.

“I exploited them,” he said on a video link from prison.

“I didn’t only exploit their age, I also exploited the fact they came from a poor Asian country and I exploited their vulnerability.

“In doing that, I not only contravened society’s standards, I think I also used and manipulated to my own advantage a power imbalance between me and them.”

Hansen was a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne until he resigned from the ministry in 2011.

The court heard he has an adopted son in Vietnam and has volunteered in overseas detention centres.

“I look back and I think so much of what I’ve done for the better in my life, I have negated by falling foul of my compulsion,” he said.

Hansen told the court he now links his offending with the moment he felt the most ashamed in his life — being led through Sydney Airport in handcuffs as onlookers “gawked”.

He claimed he would “never” offend again.

“To the day I die, I will be remorseful for what I did,” Hansen said.

Hansen has previously worked as a lawyer but turned to the church after realising his “sexual proclivities” were “abnormal”, the court heard.

Although he looked to priesthood partially to fulfil a “spiritual life”, during it he developed a dependency on pornography.

Crown Prosecutor Jennifer Single SC said the child exploitation material Hansen collected was “meticulously kept” on storage devices, including labels with the children’s names, ages and locations.

The sentencing hearing, before Judge James Bennett, continues.

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Covid victims throng tiny village for miracle medicine in AP


NELLORE: Krishnapatnam, a small and quiet village located close to Sea Coast and Krishnapatnam Port, is abuzz with activity for the last one month with hundreds of people thronging the habitation for locally made medicines for Covid-19 prevention and cure.

Though they are not aware of the composition of the medicines and their authenticity, distressed kin of hapless Covid patients have been rushing to the village for the medicine hoping that it will save the victim’s life.

 

A resident and self-made ayurveda doctor Bonigi Anandaiah is preparing the medicines and distributing them free of cost. He claims that he uses locally available leaves besides honey, pepper, green camphor, nutmeg (Jajikaya), black cumin, and cinnamon to produce the medicine.

A railway contractor with roots tracing to Mallam village near Naidupeta, and now living in Chennai, Duvvuru Rama Raghava Reddy said his village is almost free from the deadly virus after his relatives and friends distributed the medicine to the residents, including some Covid patients.

 

He said they have provided 40 kgs of honey and ayurveda ingredients worth Rs one lakh to help Anandaiah prepare the medicine and serve more people.

A resident of Mallam and contract worker in APSPDCL, B. Srikanth said his 70-year-old grandmother, who was on oxygen till Wednesday, is back home and doing well without oxygen support after they applied some eye drops given by Anandaiah.

A construction engineer, B. Mohan Rao Chaitanya of Nellore, said “the medicine saved a couple living next door. While the woman was discharged in two days, the saturation level of her husband increased to 98 from 70 two days back.”

 

Meanwhile, Anandaiah said he is not expecting any trouble from authorities since he is using natural ingredients. He has distributed his wonder medicine to nearly 50,000 persons.

Speaking to this newspaper, Anandiah said he is preparing four kinds of ayurveda medicines and eyedrops to help Covid patients to recover.

He gave code names such as P (meant for clearing infection in lungs), F (to clear poisonous substances from the body), L (to activate the liver) and K (for critical cases) apart from the eyedrops.

He said that the eyedrops will activate the brain which is affected by poor oxygen supply and reduces the patient’s dependence on oxygen. An ardent devotee of Guravaiah Swamy and a disciple of Avadhoota Venkaiah Swamy, Anandaiah attributed his knowledge to his guru Dr Vivekananda, an expert in ayurveda and Siddha medicine, living near Chennai.

 

One of his associates said a large number of government employees and even some people’s representatives have availed of the medicine.

When contacted, district collector K.V.N. Chakradhar Babu said he is deputing a team of medical officers, including doctors from Ayush department, to examine the medicine and submit a report.

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Brisbane 2011 flood victims win $440 million in class action partial settlement over operation of Wivenhoe Dam


Victims of the 2011 Brisbane floods will be paid $440 million in compensation from a class action against the Queensland government and Sunwater, in a partial settlement over the operation of the Wivenhoe Dam, north-west of Brisbane.

More than 6,500 residents won the landmark class action in 2019 after Queensland water authorities were found to have negligently managed the dam in the January 2011 floods, exacerbating damage to homes.

The historic settlement covers 50 per cent of the $880 million liability for damages.

State-owned dam operator Seqwater owes the remainder but is appealing against the payout, with a hearing set down for May.

“This has been a hard-fought and extremely expensive case on behalf of approximately 6,700 claimants … over many years,” a spokesperson for litigation funder Omni Bridgeway said in a statement announcing the settlement this morning.

Maurice Blackburn filed the class action in the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 2014.

Aerial view of homes covered by floodwaters in Ipswich, west of Brisbane, on January 12, 2011.(

AAP: Dave Hunt

)

Principal Rebecca Gilsenan said it was complex battle.

The action alleged dam operators were negligent in failing to use rainfall forecasts in making decisions about operating strategies, and failed to preserve a reasonable amount of the dams’ storage capacity in order to protect urban areas from inundation.

“This settlement is a very welcome development that we hope will bring some much-needed closure to our clients, who have had to endure significant uncertainty and frustration while the defendants fought this case at every turn,” she said.

“Of course, complete closure can only happen for our clients when Seqwater also settles or Seqwater’s appeal is finalised.

“The class will continue to vigorously fight Seqwater’s appeal, buoyed by today’s substantial settlement reached with the other two defendants.”

The settlement with the government and Sunwater is subject to approval by the NSW Supreme Court and agreement on terms, with an approval hearing likely to take place before the appeal starts in May.

Flood victim Paul Tully is outraged that Seqwater is appealing against a payout.

“The state government must direct Seqwater to withdraw their ill-considered appeal,” he said.

“It’s more than 10 years since the flood and this a despicable state of affairs.”

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Calls for more funding as most domestic violence victims don’t go to police, says damning new report


A new report has found 60 per cent of domestic violence victims don’t go to police, amid a renewed push for funding in the struggling social service sector.

The report, which was commissioned by the NSW Council of Social Service and other peak bodies, analysed job creation potential in the sector.

It found another 62,000 employees are needed by 2030 to meet the demand for social services in the state, including domestic violence support.

The report, by Equity Economics, recommended a government injection of $1 billion to create more avenues for victims to seek help while also increasing economic activity in NSW 10-fold.

Advocates have thrown their support behind the findings, arguing that without proper funding, domestic violence victims across the state will continue to fall through the cracks.

Talie, pictured with her colleague Caitlin at DVNSW, said she fell into homeless after she left her husband.(

ABC News: Mridula Amin

)

Talie Star endured six years of abuse before leaving her husband but said she never felt confident enough about the outcome to report it.

“I didn’t report it because it was too hard to report,” she said.

“There were no laws for coercive control, and I couldn’t explain it to the people around me, so how could I explain it to police?”

Ms Star, who now works as a domestic violence consultant, said she understood the reluctance among victims to report abuse.

She said the non-violent forms of coercive control, including manipulation, isolation, gaslighting, financial control, withholding children and more, could make victims second-guess whether they’ll be believed.

“I think we’d save so many more lives if we got onto it early.”

A woman in bright clothing at a lectern makes an acceptance speech
Ms Kariuki said she often sees female victims prioritising the protection of others.(

ABC News

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Rosemary Kariuki is a multicultural community liaison officer with Cumberland Police who works in combatting domestic violence in migrant communities.

She said there are nuanced barriers that can stop victims from reporting abuse among her diverse community.

“They’re often ashamed of what the community will say, or bringing shame to their family,” she said.

“They also don’t want to jail the father of their kids … the woman doesn’t look at her own suffering, she’s always trying to protect others.”

A woman's hands in her lap
The report found 56 per cent of people seeking crisis accommodation did not receive it.(

ABC News: Paige Cockburn

)

Ms Star said she fell into homelessness five years after she left her partner.

After not being able to afford her apartment on her own, she ended up couch-surfing due to being priced out of the Sydney market with her low wages.

It wasn’t until she found a specialist domestic violence service that she was able to pull together all the right paperwork and avenues to find housing that suited her disability.

But, as a victim, Ms Star was in the minority: a key finding in the report was that 56 per cent of people seeking crisis accommodation did not receive it.

A sign reads' Lou's Place is full' on a door
The sign that greets many women when they arrive for help.(

Supplied

)

Many grassroots organisations who provide crisis accommodation say they struggle to keep the doors open without any government funding.

Lou’s Place in King’s Cross is the only daytime refuge for women in Sydney but general manager Nicole Yade says they have not received any funding in 21 years, aside from during the coronavirus pandemic.

The impact of underfunding means the refuge has to keep wages low, which leaves them unable to retain talented staff long-term.

“It’s just not enough for one person to live on,” she said.

A woman smiles while standing in a kitchen
Nicole Yade said Lou’s Place struggles without government funding.(

ABC News: Paige Cockburn

)

The NSW social sector currently employs over 230,000 people, with annual economic output worth $15.4 billion.

The report found that four out of five workers in the NSW social sector are women, spread across over 7,800 organisations.

What’s more, the sector is fast approaching a crossroads, with more than 60,000 employees needed in the next nine years to meet demand.

The report recommended the NSW government review its funding mechanisms to reflect population demand and identify the mix and level of services that are needed at the local, regional and state level.

For workers like Ms Yade, that investment is needed fast.

“I do think: ‘How long can I do this work?'” she said.

“I’ve dedicated my life to people who have experienced trauma but it is depressing sometimes when you’re that undervalued.”

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Loan sharks target new victims via WhatsApp and Facebook


Criminals have been using social media – from dating sites to local community groups – to find, threaten and control people in debt

Local WhatsApp groups have been one of the silver linings of the pandemic, creating community ties and support networks. Yet loan sharks are increasingly using these groups to extort money from their victims, according to England’s Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT), an organisation that prosecutes illegal lenders and supports victims.

Such lenders are also targeting their victims online – the IMLT’s 2020 victim statistics report shows that one in 10 victims met the loan shark via social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook, or through dating websites. Criminals are also creating their own WhatsApp and Facebook groups that appear to be for local communities but are actually ways to maintain control over their victims, according to Tony Quigley, the head of the IMLT. “It looks like a local community group,” he said. “They will say ‘come and join the group’, ‘see what’s going on’. But it has a more sinister side to it.”

Continue reading…

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Israel crush: Netanyahu promises inquiry as first victims are buried


Families in Israel have begun burying their loved ones after at least 45 people died in a crush at a crowded Orthodox Jewish festival overnight.

Some 150 people were also injured at the Lag B’Omer festival, near Mount Meron, when people became trapped in an overcrowded passageway.

Funerals were allowed to take place for victims who were positively identified.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that an inquiry would ensure such a tragedy did not happen again.

Visiting the scene, he said it was one of the worst peacetime disasters the country had known.

One survivor who gave his name as David told Ynet news it had felt like a human wave had broken: “Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air – others were crushed on the ground.”

Medics struggled to reach the injured in the ensuing chaos.

Those who died are believed to be predominantly men or boys as the crush at the largely gender-segregated event apparently happened in one of the men’s sections.

Some victims are believed to be foreign nationals. Israeli airline El Al has offered to assist family members of victims living abroad who wish to attend their loved ones’ funerals in Israel.

Sunday has been declared a national day of mourning.

Bodies of the dead were taken from the festival site to the L Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir in Tel Aviv for identification.

One of the first funerals to be reported was that of Rabbi Elazar Goldberg, who was in his late thirties.

Mourners in Jerusalem prayed, some wept, as the body covered in a white sheet was moved into the back of a vehicle ahead of burial, Reuters news agency reports.

Two of the youngest victims were brothers Moshe Natan Englander, 14, and Yehoshua Englander, 9, from Jerusalem.

At least two of the dead are US citizens from New York, Congressman Mondaire Jones confirmed in a tweet.

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Elderly couple among victims of triple fatal crash


The 87-year-old male and a 85-year-old female passenger from Lyndhurst were driving a Toyota Yarris hatchback along the Mid Western Highway near Cowra when they collided with a ute.

Police understand the driver of the Holden Ute, a 76-year-old male from Young veered into the east-bound lane, crashing into the Toyota.

All three people died on impact.

Police are still working to contact all members of the families involved and have not yet released the identities of those killed in the crash.

The Mid Western Highway was closed in both directions yesterday however the road has since reopened to drivers.

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Victims launch $150 million legal class action against SA Power Networks over Cudlee Creek bushfire in Adelaide Hills


A class action lawsuit seeking $150 million for victims of the 2019 Cudlee Creek bushfire in the Adelaide Hills has been lodged with the South Australian Supreme Court.

Maddens Lawyers is seeking compensation for up to 1,000 victims of the blaze, which destroyed more than 90 homes and killed one person in December 2019.

It claims SA Power Networks’ inadequate fault protection settings led to the bushfire, which started when a tree fell on power lines and then a fence.

Brendan Pendergast the Victorian law firm Maddens Lawyers said South Australia’s energy distributor knew it was a catastrophic fire danger day, with a total fire ban in place.

“And yet we see in the Office of the Technical Regulator’s report that the fault mechanisms were adjusted to normal settings and quite alarmingly the auto-reclose device operated twice so it de-energised the line and then re-energised it after the tree fell on the line and brought it down to the ground,” he said.

A CFS firefighter stands next to a koala close to the fire front during the Cudlee Creek fire.(

Facebook: Eden Hills Country Fire Service

)

In its report on the fire released in August, the Office of the Technical Regulator said it “could not identify any indicators that could have enabled a reasonable person to identify this tree failure prior to the event”.

Mr Pendergast said he would present experts who said the tree was already “severely compromised” three years before the fire and should have been identified as “dead, dying or dangerous”.

Range of losses from bushfire

He said losses went beyond the destroyed homes and 1,000 hectares in damaged vineyards.

“So we’re seeking to recover compensation for those aspects of the fire as well.”

An SA Power Networks spokesman said the company had not yet seen “the detail of the claim” but would defend its actions.

“An independent government report concluded the fire start was due to a tree falling from outside the vegetation clearance zone surrounding power lines, and that SAPN had acted in accord with its bushfire and vegetation management procedures and equipment settings,” he said.

SA Power Networks is controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing.

The remains of a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills after a fire swept through.
The remains of a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills after a fire swept through.(

ABC News: Shuba Krishnan

)

Maddens Lawyers is also representing victims of the November 2019 Yorketown bushfire, which was caused by a power network fault.

That case is heading to court-ordered mediation next month.

“We’re optimistic that proper resolution can be achieved at that time rather than taking the matter before the court for a determination,” Mr Pendergast said.

Mr Pendergast’s firm has been involved in a number of lawsuits relating to bushfires, starting with the Ash Wednesday fire that struck the Adelaide Hills and parts of Victoria in 1983.

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Asia’s prisons are filling up with women. Many are victims of the war on drugs


The 21-year-old Indonesian’s bag was put into the security scanner and she remembers agreeing to be searched.

By the time officers had slashed open the lining of her backpack and dislodged the white crystals concealed inside, Yuni said she knew she’d been tricked.

Yuni is not her real name. CNN is using an alias because the former accused drug trafficker, now aged 23, wants to move on with her life.

Back in 2018, hours before her flight, her new boss had given her a padlocked bag in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. She says the middle-aged Nigerian man, who she knew only as Peter, claimed it was “just clothes” and promised to pay her $1,000 if she took it to Hong Kong.

But she never saw Peter again. The crystals turned out to be 2kg of methamphetamine, worth $140,000 when the haul was seized.

At that moment, Yuni became one of tens of thousands of women caught up in Asia’s punitive drug wars. She was arrested in Hong Kong on suspicion of drug trafficking, a crime carrying up to life imprisonment in the city, and execution in other parts of the region.

An overlooked consequence of Asia’s drug wars is the outsized impact they have had on women.
Today, jails in East and Southeast Asia hold the world’s biggest proportions of female prisoners. In many nations, the majority are incarcerated for drug offenses: 82% of women in Thai prisons are jailed for this and in the Philippines that figure is 53%.

Criminologists widely agree this surge is not due to an increase in women’s criminal activity, but tougher sentencing for low-level drug crimes.

Women tend to be involved at the bottom rungs of the trade, where most arrests take place.

There is no data showing exactly how many women work as so-called drug mules. But the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised concern about the “over-incarceration” of women couriers and growing research is unraveling critical connections between gender, crime and justice.

Yuni was elated when a friend told her about a lucrative “traveling job.” I wanted “to learn about the world,” she says in a WhatsApp video call from the Indonesian city of Medan.

The high school graduate had dreamed of going to university to study economics but drifted into waitressing jobs to support her family. Her mother was ill and her father’s ad hoc building work didn’t cover their bills.

Yuni says the recruiter, an older Indonesian woman, flew her to a nearby island for an interview. There, she was told that her job would start in Cambodia and that her local boss would be a man named Peter.

“I wasn’t suspicious. Maybe I wasn’t brave enough to ask questions”Yuni,
Indonesian arrested for drug trafficking

“I wasn’t suspicious,” says Yuni. “Maybe I wasn’t brave enough to ask questions.”

She admits it was foolish not to look inside the bag Peter gave her in Phnom Penh to fly to Hong Kong. But she says the absence of her fingerprints inside helped support her claim at trial that she didn’t know what she was carrying.

The drugs in her bag likely came from the Golden Triangle, the name given to rugged borderlands traversing Myanmar, Thailand and Laos — one of the world’s busiest trafficking hubs.
In recent years, its opium poppy fields have been giving way to jungle laboratories, as the demand for synthetic drugs outstrips the demand for heroin. Today, Southeast Asia is the epicenter of the global methamphetamine trade, which is worth up to $61 billion a year in Asia Pacific alone.

When not paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong is a major air transit hub with good security controls. The city metes out harsh punishments for smuggling drugs, according to a March report by the law firm Linklaters for Penal Reform International.

Prison terms of 14 to 20 years were common for female drug traffickers prosecuted in the city, some of the harshest sentences in 18 jurisdictions studied in the report.

“There appears to be no recognition of the reasons why women become involved” in drugs, the report said, with “lower-level involvement” rarely considered a mitigating factor.

Yuni had no idea about the austere legal landscape she’d entered. She says missed calls from Peter were stacking up on her cellphone as she told customs officials her story.

When no one arrived for the bag at the hotel where he had told her to go, police took Yuni to Tai Lam Center for Women, a maximum-security jail in Hong Kong’s New Territories.

For the past seven years, Father John Wotherspoon has taken extraordinary steps to help convicted drug mules in Hong Kong. From his tiny apartment in Kowloon, the 73-year-old priest tries to connect the dots between the couriers trapped in the city’s jails and the syndicates that landed them there.

“It’s still the little fish who are arrested,” he says in a telephone interview.

Years of working as a prison chaplain brought him into contact with men and women couriers and convinced him more could be done to stop traffickers preying on “people who are vulnerable, who need money, who can be tricked,” he says.

Father John Wotherspoon has worked with accused drug traffickers in Hong Kong to try to track down drug lords.

So in 2013, the priest says he started asking detainees to write about their experiences. He published the letters on his blog, hoping their accounts could help identify drug lords.

In some cases, Wotherspoon says he traveled to couriers’ homes to gather evidence to prove their innocence. He says he has searched for syndicate leaders from Brazil to Thailand. Evidence he has unearthed has been used in court rooms to free detainees.

On one routine chaplaincy visit in 2018, Wotherspoon met Yuni. After hearing her story, he realized he’d found a new piece in the puzzle of a trafficker who had also recruited another Indonesian May Lazarus, not her real name, in the same Hong Kong jail.

“When I showed (Yuni) a photo of Peter, she broke down. Half in anger, crying,” he says.

That year, Wotherspoon flew to Cambodia to find Peter, hoping to secretly record him admitting he had duped the Indonesians. He couldn’t locate him, but shared his findings with Hong Kong and Cambodian police, as well as the women’s legal teams.

“I hope the publicity of their cases stopped others being tricked,” he says.

On the Indonesian island where she grew up, Lazarus explains how her life crossed paths with that of Yuni.

“All wars on drugs have achieved is prison population growth”Samantha Jeffries,
a senior lecturer in criminology at Australia’s Griffith University

In December 2016 she, too, was arrested at Hong Kong International Airport for trafficking drugs, aged 21. Authorities found 2.6kg of meth inside a suitcase she carried from Abidjan, a city in West Africa’s Ivory Coast. But her journey also started in Phnom Penh.

The young mother says she was introduced to Peter by the same woman who recruited Yuni, a connection they uncovered in jail after Wotherspoon brought them together.

But Lazarus says she was pursuing romance, not a job, to escape an unhappy marriage. After chatting on messaging apps, she met Peter in Cambodia, where he invited her to Abidjan.

On the day of their flight he pulled out, blaming a work emergency, but asked if she could still go and bring back some luggage.

“(He was) a sweet talker,” she says.

“So I said, Okay, why not. It’s a free trip,” adds Lazarus, explaining that she didn’t know the suitcase his friends later gave her contained drugs. She spent two nights at a hotel before Peter arranged for her to fly back to Malaysia, with a stopover in Hong Kong.

At first Lazarus pleaded guilty to trafficking drugs. But she later changed her plea hoping she might return sooner to her toddler. She says the free legal aid in Hong Kong, as well as Wotherspoon’s help, empowered her to fight the charge.

After 2.5 years in jail awaiting trial, she was freed last June when a jury found her not guilty. Four months later, Lazarus returned to Hong Kong as a witness for Yuni, who was freed, too.

There are no public records explaining the decisions but John Reading, a former deputy director of public prosecutions, says such verdicts usually mean the jury had doubts about whether the women knew they were carrying drugs.

For too long, gender has been “a blind spot” in our understanding of criminal justice, says Delphine Lourtau, executive director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

A 2018 report she co-authored found pervasive gender inequality in prosecutions of women for capital drug offenses including women’s poorer access to legal representation and bail. Women accused of low-level drug trafficking sometimes received longer sentences than men up the chain, it said, as they had less information to trade for plea deals.
There are often striking similarities in inmates’ stories, says Samantha Jeffries, co-author of a 2019 study exploring women’s paths to prison for cross-border drug trafficking in Southeast Asia.

Each of the Thai inmates she interviewed in Cambodia, for example, had carried drugs for someone else, usually a foreign man and frequently a romantic partner.

None were career criminals and most had vulnerabilities, such as low education levels or poverty. The majority reported no knowledge of the drugs in their luggage and several were exploited through dating scams, although some expressed their choice to traffic drugs for money.

But when it came to sentencing there was little room to consider their individual circumstances, says Jeffries, a senior lecturer in criminology at Australia’s Griffith University, adding that judicial officers should be granted more discretion to account for factors such as culpability or exploitation.

“All wars on drugs have achieved is prison population growth,” Jeffries says.

Now divorced, living with her parents and daughter, Lazarus knows her journey could have ended very differently. She was initially booked to fly to Tawau in east Malaysia. But at the last minute, Peter told her to stop over in Hong Kong. Had she flown directly to Malaysia, she says, “I’d be finished.”

Malaysia has one of the largest death rows in Southeast Asia. As of February 2019, at least 1,281 people there faced execution, according to Amnesty International, nearly triple the number in Thailand, for example.

Capital punishment has mostly been applied against drug trafficking, which carried a mandatory death sentence from 1983 as Malaysia adopted the US rhetoric of drugs as the country’s biggest enemy. Though it dropped the mandatory element in 2017, judges routinely sentence people to death for the offense, as lawyers say the conditions to waive the penalty are almost impossible to meet.

The impact of this on foreign women has been staggering. Of the 141 women on death row in Malaysia, as of February 2019, 95% were sentenced for trafficking drugs, compared to 70% of men, found Amnesty. And 90% of the women sentenced to death for drug trafficking were foreigners.

From the start, the system is stacked against non-Malaysians. They’re only guaranteed legal representation at trial, with a lack of interpreters and lawyers at arrest, according to the Amnesty report. The presumption of guilt and mistreatment during police interrogation were among other concerns raised by Amnesty.

“Your access to justice is pretty much dependent on how deep your pockets are,” says N Sivananthan, a criminal lawyer who’s represented hundreds of drug trafficking-accused in Malaysia. He calls some “active participants” who swallowed cocaine in plastic bags or strapped meth to their thighs, qualifying they could have been coerced. But many were “duped,” he says.

One case still haunts him. Maryam Mansour, a single mother from Tehran, was arrested in Kuala Lumpur in 2010 with an Iranian man, who she described as her boyfriend. Police tailed her from the airport, finding 2.2kg of meth in her bag, but on interrogation, all questions put to her were answered by him.

Court documents say she asked for an interpreter, but the boyfriend, who spoke English, told her not to worry. He was released on a bond and later deemed untraceable; Mansour was sentenced to death.

“She should have been acquitted at High Court … Much more could have been done to implicate the man”N Sivananthan,
a criminal lawyer

Sivananthan was her appeal lawyer. “She should have been acquitted at High Court … Much more could have been done to implicate the man,” he says.

Mansour testified the bag was for him and that she didn’t know it contained drugs, Sivananthan said. A major challenge, explains the lawyer, is the quality of court-assigned counsel at trial, exposed during appeal when it’s nearly impossible to introduce new arguments.
Some activists have raised concerns about gender bias in capital appeals. A 2018 study for the Penang Institute, a think tank, based on a small sample of capital punishment cases, suggested women convicted of drug trafficking had a lower chance than men of having their cases overturned.

Mansour’s final appeal was also rejected and she remains on death row.

Back in Medan, Yuni has found a job at a poultry factory. She often thinks about the women still jailed in Hong Kong, hoping there will be no more like her.

Jeremy Douglas, a regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says many countries “continue to sentence couriers and people with low threshold amounts as traffickers — which they are not.” The UNODC is pushing for sentencing reform to focus on “traffickers that run the drug trade” not the couriers “disposable to organized crime,” he said.

Yuni, meanwhile, is trying to build a new life.

“Many people don’t believe I didn’t know (about the drugs),” she says. “But god and the court gave me a chance. My mother supported me. Next time no one can cheat me.”

Thank you for dropping in to My Local Pages and reading this post about the latest Asian news items titled “Asia’s prisons are filling up with women. Many are victims of the war on drugs”. This article is posted by My Local Pages Australia as part of our national news services.

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