With so many emotions running high I thought it would be a good idea not to pass judgment on the case of Australian, Annice Smoel, who was accused of attempting to steal a bar mat from a bar in Phuket.
While I tried not to pass judgment, there was an immediate reaction to the whole incident when I first heard about it in the western media. My gut reaction was that we’re not hearing the whole story. Even though Thailand’s legal system is rather unique I don’t think Thai coppers normally throw respectable tourists in jail over a simple bar mat. I figured that at the worst they had asked her to pay some damages and a fine and for whatever reason she couldn’t or wouldn’t and then that’s normally how you get put in jail over relatively minor offenses.
Another thought that crossed my mind initially was that whoever was advising her in this matter seemed to doing her more harm than good. By taking her case to the world stage she was making it very difficult for anyone to back down. The Thai police don’t want to lose face which means that when you start broadcasting your story around the world you are giving them the ammunition they need to make an example out of your case by pursuing a lengthy investigation and judicial process in order to prove that the case is being handled in a fair and normal matter. The bar owner has no incentive to back down because then it’s open season on ripping him off. It’s a Mexican Standoff.
And, as I had suspected as the story began to unfold the sweet Annice Smoel started looking less and less innocent.
The bar mat was not some $1 or $2 trinket Smoel’s friends lifted but several reports put the replacement cost around $35 – $40 USD. People familiar with the bar at which the events happened have guessed that the only thing in the bar considered a mat that might cost such an amount would be the rubber floor mats which weigh nearly a kilo. How one could not notice someone putting a large rubber floor mat in your purse?
It would later be revealed that Ms. Smoel attempted to do a runner on the cops. The mere act of doing a runner on a copper who has detained you for questioning is a crime in and of itself in most civilized nations so even a drunken Ms. Smoel could not have been under the impression that she was deescalating the situation by committing another crime in an attempt to avoid the first.
We would learn that when Ms. Smoel was eventually apprehended she then became abusive with the police and even when back at the station made abusive and insulting comments to the chief of police. I don’t know the laws in every western country but there are still a few where you can be charged with being verbally abusive to the police. Surely, even if she was unaware of any sorts of laws, she couldn’t have believed that her behavior was helping her situation.
So far, even if this was all just a big prank played on her by her friends, her subsequent actions are worthy of some form of punishment in nearly every country.
But the thing that strikes me so wrong about all of this is the fact that no matter how little you know about Thai laws or how the police work here, doing a runner on the cops and then abusing everyone up and down the chain of command aren’t the actions of an innocent, normally law-abiding person, who happened to have been caught up in a prank gone wrong. They’re the actions of someone who feels above the law.
Let’s say that you’re ANYWHERE in the world and the police stop you and search your bag and find something stolen. If it were truly a joke gone wrong you apologize profusely to the police and explain what happened. Then you offer to apologize to the bar owner (knowing he will most likely be the one filing charges) and ask if you can make some sort of restitution to the bar owner for causing a hassle. Of course, this being Thailand, if the copper wants a little for his troubles you pay it, smile, and thank the officer for his understanding and helpfulness. Everyone goes away happy and you get to sleep in your own bed that night.
If this incident had played out in her home country and she stole a $35 – $40 item and then did a runner on the cops and became abusive while in custody do you think one newspaper anywhere in the world would have wasted even a single drop of ink to write about her plight? Of course not. It’s news because she’s banged up overseas and facing “up to” five years in jail.
The reason I quoted “up to” is because that is yet another bone I have to pick with press who covered the story. Five years is the maximum sentence. Maximum. Not the minimum. Not the likely sentence. Not the standard sentence. It’s the maximum. Yet I read not one single press item where they discussed what a likely sentence would be for a first time tourist offender. Or where there were mitigating circumstances.
You hear it all the time in the US, UK, Australia and all the other countries that were loudly publicizing the case. “Mr. Jones faces a possible five year prison sentence but legal experts agree that he will likely receive time served and a fine.”
The truth was that what she got in the end was just about that. She got a six month suspended sentence and a $38 fine which the governor of Phuket paid for her.
And I’ll take a wild guess and say had she offered to pay $38 when the police originally stopped her she would have saved herself two nights in a jail cell and being detained in Thailand for three weeks.
Many people commenting on message boards and such have tried to give her the benefit of the doubt saying maybe she wasn’t that familiar with how things worked. But in an interview she did after arriving back in Australia she said:
“It was a dumb thing to do in a country where you don’t do dumb things, I knew that at the time.”
Ah, so she did know better.
In the same interview she says of admitting to the charges:
“I had to do what I had to do to get out.”
“The governor of Phuket was there and he guaranteed me personally that I wouldn’t go to jail if I pleaded guilty,” she said.
“If I’d pleaded not guilty it would have taken months to go to trial and I just had to come home.”
What was she going to do, fight the charges? She was caught red-handed with property that belonged to the bar.
Now, it may sound like I’m viewing this in very black and white terms. I’m not. I agree that going to jail over a prank involving a $40 item seems excessive. But every single one of her actions has done nothing but flame this issue. I’ve yet to read anything from her indicating remorse over having caused such a huge mess. She never mentions doing the runner or acting abusively with the police officers, which is what really landed her in jail and in hot water in the first place. She could have easily avoided all of this by simply acting like a real law-abiding person and apologizing and offering to compensate the bar owner and being just a tad bit humble.
Instead in her press interviews she keeps conjuring up images of Schapelle Corby who received a 20-year jail sentence in Bali.
“Being locked up in that cell for two days on a concrete slab and worrying that, you know, so many times it went through my head, this is just like Schapelle Corby even though drugs weren’t involved,’’ she said.
“They’re just going to lock me up and throw away the key and not care. They didn’t seem to care that I didn’t do it, and I told them hundreds of times but they didn’t care.”
Except many people believe Corby is actually innocent and Smoel was admittedly in possession of stolen property. Then she ran from the police and insulted them. Yes, the cases are so alike. The world is dumbfounded why after seeing that you’re a farang they didn’t just offer to put you up at a five-star hotel and possibly send the chief of police over to your villa to be your personal errand boy. Who the fuck thinks like this other than someone so completely self-absorbed as to be borderline sociopathic?
It’s not surprising that someone who does think like that is a politician. Premier of Victoria John Brumby told the media:
“To be honest, that message did get through to the Thai authorities and they saw common sense and that is that this was a trivial matter, that there’d been an overreaction, and that a woman’s rights had been gravely infringed.”
If it was a trivial matter why did the Australian government get involved at all other than the normal diplomatic assistance? She was facing legitimate charges. It wasn’t very likely she would receive the maximum sentence and she certainly wasn’t facing anything like the death penalty.
And what rights have been gravely infringed? Her rights were no more infringed than any other person who gets arrested in Thailand. She was offered bail. Just because she couldn’t put together 100,000 baht (less than $3000 USD) for two days isn’t the fault of the Thai police or justice system. She was given an opportunity for a trial. She wasn’t raped, tortured or physically abused while in custody. So exactly where did this supposed grave violation of her rights happen?
Instead Mr. Brumby should be saying that she’s quite lucky she got off with a slap on the wrist and that even though it was all a joke gone wrong, committing crimes in foreign countries and being disrespectful to lawful authorities is not something the Australian government condones. Perhaps they should have even revoked her passport upon arrival home to send a message that going overseas an acting like a jackass and embarrassing your country isn’t a right.
Smoel says she’ll never return to Thailand. Good. And many of those who support her say they’ll never come to Thailand. Fantastic. Because if you are the type of person who thinks you can go to a foreign country, steal things (even as a prank), and that there should be no consequences, then it’s better you stay at home. Nobody really wants you as a tourist. And the foreigners who live there don’t want your type making them look bad either.
Like I said, her original crime may have been the result of a prank gone bad. But a civil demeanor, showing respect for the police officers doing their job, and actually being somewhat remorseful when caught are all she needed to get out of it. She obviously doesn’t know how to behave and those who defend her don’t either.