Czech heroin smugglers behind bars in Bangkok home "within months"


The authorities in Thailand announced recently that two Czech men serving long prison sentences for heroin smuggling will be allowed to return home, to serve their sentences in a Czech prison. The announcement came three months after the Czech Republic and Thailand signed an agreement allowing prisoner exchanges, the first step in what their relatives hope will lead to their eventual release. But how long the two will stay in prison once they return to this country is still unclear.

Life in a Czech prison is certainly no picnic, but it's a life of luxury compared to 50 years behind bars in Bangkok. Emil Novotny and Radek Hanykovics describe a daily routine of almost medieval squalor: prisoners are given fetid river water to wash in, chickens, cats and rats wander freely among the cells, and most of their fellow inmates are convicted murderers. An estimated 10 percent of them have tuberculosis.

Emil Novotny - now 27 - was the first to be sentenced. In March 1995 he was arrested at Bangkok Airport carrying 4.2 kilograms of heroin. Under Thailand's draconian drug laws, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison. His sentence was later commuted under a royal amnesty, but he still faces another 34 years behind bars. If Emil Novotny were to serve his full term in Thailand, he wouldn't leave prison until his early sixties.

A year after Novotny was arrested, Radek Hanykovics - who is 34 - was also caught at Bangkok Airport, carrying 2.4 kilograms of heroin. He too was sentenced to 50 years, but his sentence was halved in the amnesty. He's due to be released in 2020.

Initially it seemed Novotny and Hanykovics were to face most of the rest of their lives in Thailand. But in May there came a breakthrough. After years of diplomacy between Prague and Bangkok, the two countries signed a treaty on prisoner exchange. In June the Czech Justice Ministry sent an official application for the two men to be transferred to Czech custody. At the end of last week, the Thai authorities agreed. But only after the Czech Supreme Court confirmed the length of their sentences - a key Thai condition for the two men's release. They could arrive home as soon as this autumn.

But what happens after that is far from clear. Under Czech law the maximum sentence for drugs offences is fifteen years. Under the terms of the Czech-Thai agreement, the two are due to spend far longer that in prison. Emil Novotny, for example, will serve the equivalent of two sentences for murder.

That situation, say friends and relatives of the men, is grotesque. But finding a way to reduce their prison terms will not be easy. Under Czech law the two can apply for early release - but only after they've served two-thirds of their sentences. The only other option is for the president to free them by pardon, but a senior aide to President Vaclav Klaus has already suggested that's unlikely.

Perhaps their best hope lies with the public. Sympathy for the two was evoked in a recent film, inspired by their story. At home they will be far more accessible to the media, allowing them and their supporters to lobby more effectively for their release.