Graham Cleghorn….victim of injustice in Cambodia?

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The Press
February 5 2007

Trouble overseas
by Dan Eaton

The number of Kiwis getting into trouble overseas is rising, putting increasing pressure on diplomats to help. DAN EATON looks at what they can do in a crisis.

Get arrested in a far-flung land and you will not find a horde of sympathetic diplomats rushing to your aid.

That is the experience of a growing number of New Zealanders as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) reports a surge in demand for its consular services.

"I was told they only had a very small consulate there and I shouldn't call them," says Seham Ayad, her voice cracking with anguish.

Her daughter, Mariam Shafeek, 21, was released at the weekend after being locked up in a United Arab Emirates jail for being found with 0.2g of marijuana at Dubai Airport.

"This is not the way you treat New Zealand citizens. I work hard and pay taxes and I expect the best treatment for my children," she told a journalist, her complaint splashed across the front page of The Press the next day.

But the truth is that unless Ayad's daughter, a bright, attractive polytech student from Christchurch, has been kidnapped, blown up or swept out to sea in a freak act of nature, the New Zealand Government is unlikely to be very sympathetic.

It is a harsh reality, highlighted in the plight of several Kiwis who have made headlines in recent months.

Asked if more could be done for Shafeek, Prime Minister Helen Clark said she was satisfied with Mfat's efforts and that her fate should serve as a warning to other travellers.

Another case the Government appears reluctant to touch is that of accused child rapist Graham Cleghorn in Cambodia, despite concerns over corruption in that country's justice system.

Similarly, last week it ruled out any political intervention in the case of New Zealand businessman Bruce Robinson, held in a Polish jail after the collapse of the snow-covered roof of a hall in Katowice.

David Pemberton, a former Kiwi commando held on child- abduction charges in Lebanon, has complained repeatedly of a lack of support.

Conclusions seem easily drawn when those cases are compared with efforts to rescue kidnapped Auckland student Harmeet Sooden in Iraq or television personality Anita McNaught's cameraman husband, Olaf Wiig, in the Palestinian territories.

However, spare a thought for New Zealand's weary consuls.

The terror attacks of 9/11, the Bali bombings and the Asian tsunami have raised the profile of New Zealand diplomats, along with public expectations.

"The whole phenomenon of communications is now so much more instant and responses are expected to be much more instant," says Rosemary Paterson, director of Mfat's consular division.

"The TV crews are there often before we can get there.

"It is the same with individual cases. People can get in touch with their families so much faster, and that puts additional demands on us."

With terrorist attacks on the rise and more Kiwis travelling abroad, Mfat's latest annual report says that the demand for consular services has steadily grown -- a trend that is expected to continue.

The consular division, with its 24-hour call centre, three Wellington-based case managers and officers in 49 posts from Turkey to Vanuatu, fielded 40,520 calls in the past year, not including the 2300 after the London bombings.

They provided assistance to 2414 Kiwis in distress, including more than 300 arrested or languishing in prisons.

Paterson denies there is a different response or level of sympathy for those caught breaking foreign laws.

New Zealand consuls, she says, have no ability to intervene in the legal system of another country. When you go abroad you are subject to the laws and courts of whatever country you visit, just as foreigners are subject to ours.

On its new website, www. safetravel.govt.nz Mfat advises Kiwis to know the laws of the places they plan to visit. If you are imprisoned, the only advice is to adapt, get to know the prison rules and consider any educational or counselling opportunities offered.

The most Mfat can do for you is contact your family and provide a list of local lawyers.

"It does go back to this question of personal responsibility and being prepared," says Paterson.

"If you go into a country and you are trafficking drugs ... you are going to have to learn a lesson the really hard way.

"Nobody would wish on someone that they were thrown into prison in really ghastly circumstances, and their families suffer hugely."

The reason why more action appears to be being taken in hostage situations or after disasters is because they are often a matter of life and death.

"It's not a judgment based on a person's guilt or innocence but on a person's real need," says Paterson.

She concedes that some families of those incarcerated feel frustrated, turning to the media for help. But raising a fuss is not always the best course of action.

While the media can be useful in ensuring someone's plight is not ignored, accusations of corruption and ill-treatment can raise the ire of local judges and law- enforcement officials.

Media involvement can also add an element of stress for anxious families.

Jim Hopa, a Geraldine policeman, is someone who has experienced that stress. He says he was "absolutely gutted" by some of his experiences with the media after his son Aron went missing, thought murdered, from a survey ship near Dubai in 1999. Hopa has some advice on just what consuls in foreign lands can achieve.

"Their hands are tied. You really are at the mercy of the local administration," he says. "What little they did do may seem something big but to the eyes of a parent it is small."

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Jim Hopa Graham Cleghorn Bruce Robinson