Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The most expensive bananas in Thailand


Harry Nicolaides Thai prisonDespite the best efforts of his jailers, Behnam Moafi, an Iranian-Swede born in Tehran in 1968, refuses to die.

He is serving a 22-year sentence in a Thai prison for extortion, blackmail and armed robbery — a crime, according to Fair Trials International, he did not commit.

After eight years of abuse, torture, hunger, solitary confinement, malnutrition, illness and conditions that would push lesser men into insanity, Benny, as he is known to the inmates of Klong Prem Prison, has earned a Thai law degree and learned to play a traditional Thai musical instrument. Preparing his own cases, he has also launched over 130 legal actions against prison officials, police officers and lawyers.

Harry Nicolaides, Thai prisonThrough several changes of government, a political coup d'état, and great social upheaval, Benny has learned a great deal about Thailand. Indeed many of its dissidents, former leaders and ruling elite have ended up in his prison cell.

This month, he lodged a request to have his case re-heard, taking advantage of an obscure loophole in the Thai penal code that allows for this type of review only once in ten years.

Benny has faced far worse odds and has nothing to lose. However, if the ruling is handed down in his favour, several officers of Thailand's revered judiciary, senior government bureaucrats and the Bangkok-based, foreign chanceries of several different countries will be shamed before the world community.

Harry Nicolaides, Thai prisonBenny Moafi was arrested by Thai police on 14 September 2000. He was implicated in allegedly beating, robbing and kidnapping a Syrian national in the room of a Bangkok hotel. In an effort to help two Iranian families in a dispute with a third man, Benny found himself accused of using a gun to rob and intimidate the Syrian national.

Relying solely on the testimony of the Syrian, the court found Benny guilty of charges including possession of a handgun. Strangely, the Syrian waited 14 days after the alleged crime before lodging his complaint, and longer before he revised his statement to include the gun.

While Benny is currently at Minburi Special Prison, a detention centre on the outskirts of Bangkok, over the last eight years he has served time in more than six different prisons and 17 different compounds. He has been transferred every time he exposed corruption or abuse in the prison system.

Harry Nicolaides, Thai prisonHe also campaigned for the rights and privileges of other prisoners. His most recent challenge to the director of Bangkok Remand Prison over the extortionate price of bananas sold to inmates saw him swiftly banished to the smaller, isolated correctional outpost in Minburi. This has not stopped Benny from continuing to write his letters to the NGOs and human rights organisations he hopes will one day help him.

Sabine Zanker, head of the legal team of Fair Trials International, always looks forward to hearing from Benny. 'His letters are always a pleasure to read. He is upbeat even in the darkest hours, resourceful, knowledgeable and won't be intimidated. While working on his own case, he has also always an open ear for his fellow prisoners and stands up against the authorities on their behalf.

'During my eight and a half years here at Fair Trails Abroad I have seen a number of people who have risen to the occasion, and he has shown strength of character, dignity and compassion during most difficult times. Benny is a prime example of somebody whom prison made an even better person.'

Harry Nicolaides, Thai prisonWhile Benny has shown great humanity and compassion towards others, the same cannot be said about his own government. Sadly, the Swedish embassy has so far shown little sympathy towards his plight. Indeed they have never attended his hearings.

Lucia Trenkler, a Swedish lawyer who is in close contact with the people looking into his case said, 'Swedish authorities are making great efforts to help Benny, but the final decision must be made on the Thai side.' For Benny it seems Thailand has already made its decision and Sweden has forgotten him.

The inmates on death row in Klong Prem Prison remember Benny well. Contrary to the UN's International Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners, leg-irons and chains are typically used for restraint and punishment in Thai prisons. By submitting an appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court on behalf of several prisoners, Benny was successful in having the chains removed.

Harry Nicolaides, Thai prisonBenny is also well known to the judiciary of Bangkok's criminal courts. Summoned to a court appearance he was, as is the local custom, ordered to remove his shoes and socks before entering the courtroom. Despite threats and intimidation from court officials Benny resisted. He was eventually forced to remove them.

Standing before the judge he made an impassioned plea in Thai asking the judge if he was considered a human being. The judge, impressed by Benny's eloquence and his command of the Thai language, made an exception and allowed him to put his shoes back on. After this precedent hundreds of other prisoners did the same.

But Benny has had little luck in having his own case reviewed on appeal. He notes that in the Thai legal system you are guilty until proven innocent. In the hearings to date he has been thwarted by long delays, endless postponements and, as reported by Fair Trials International in their own independent investigation, dubious findings.

Harry Nicolaides, Thai prisonHis efforts to have his case heard have also been hampered because the witnesses that could corroborate his story returned to Iran shortly after the alleged crime took place. His Thai lawyer, Mr Worasit Piriyawiboon (who has dedicated himself to exposing what he firmly believes is the wrongful conviction of an innocent man), recently travelled to Tehran to have statements made by the witnesses.

These affidavits, finally validated by Iran's foreign ministry, have now been submitted with other documents to support the current request for a re-trial in Thailand.

It has been a long journey for Benny. He has come to know the system well. 'In this system, you pay the police and you are gone. If you don't pay the police, you pay the prosecutor. If not, you will have to buy the judges and lawyers. Those with no money are sentenced and sent to the monkey house where they pay the custodians of the prison. The most expensive bananas sold in the whole kingdom of Thailand are those sold in prison.'

Harry NicolaidesAustralian writer Harry Nicolaides was a prisoner at Bangkok Remand Prison from September 2008 to February 2009, held on charges of lèse majesté. He met Benny Moafi in prison.

Topic tags: harry nicolaides, lese majeste, benny moafi, bangkok, thailand, thai prison system



submit a comment

Existing comments

I am writing this to place on record my thorough disgust at the treatment of prisoner Behnam Moafi in various prisons in Thailand. While allowing for the rights of Government to punish wrongdoers and to maintain law and order, it appears that all normally accepted standards have been ignored.

I would be happy to participate in appropriate representations to the Thai authorities if a more embracing action is being planned.

Professor Desmond O'Connor | 08 June 2009  

So many great and wonderful people have destroyed or cleansed in prison. Let us not forget the victims.

Ray O'Donoghue | 08 June 2009  

We were living in Bangkok during the Vietnam war and as members of the local Vincent De Paul regularly visited the immigration jail. For may our visit was the only contact with the outside world. It is sad that nothing seems to have improved in four decades.

Maurice Ferdinando | 08 June 2009  

I was touched by this article and wondering if there is any justice practiced in Thailand at all! We all have heard lots of histories about Thailand but there is no action from the International Community to prevent or reduce such illegal convictions if I may say so. In this regard I have started a Facebook group activity to inform international community for such actions. Please visit: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&ref=search&gid=391066300280

Alex | 04 March 2010  

It's indeed sad that there are still shackles and mistreatment in Thai prison. At this time, Mr. Behnam Moafi is released but is fighting for the case of many others still incarcerated. There have been numerous interviews with him broadcast in Thailand. He's fighting to get the shackles out of the Thai prisons and to free all those who were scapegoats.

Anna | 29 August 2010  

I have been thinking if such a prisoner finally,has been proven innocent, the compensation under the compensation for an innocent and injured person act would cover cost for their entire life.

Natcha Holmqvist | 23 June 2012  

i did 87days in thai prison

khun chai | 22 November 2014  

Similar Articles

Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday behind bars

  • Carol Ransley
  • 18 June 2009

Sitting inside a purpose-built cell within Burma's notorious Insein prison, Suu Kyi today turns 64. Despite the 'bells and whistles' of a Burmese court, Suu Kyi is unlikely to receive a fair trial and will likely spend the next few years in prison.


Gaddafi's Vatican weirdness

  • Desmond O'Grady
  • 16 June 2009

Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi looked like Michael Jackson when he landed in Rome. During his first ever visit to Italy, he said Islamic forms of government should not be criticised since the Vatican is a theocratic State.