Eight years in a Thai jail: the cautionary tale of Radek Hanykovics

On 17th March, Radek Hanykovics would have celebrated his 38th birthday. Radek had known for some time that his lung cancer was untreatable, but his death on 30th January still came as a shock to his friends and family. A few months before he died, he published a book that tells the bleak and moving tale of the last ten years of his life. The book's title, which translates as "drugs are not worth dying for", more than hints at the subject matter. But this is not another story of drug addiction.

Detention Centre, Bombat Piset, Thailand 4th March 1996

I have been in a detention cell at the police station for several days. It's about twenty metres square and, alongside two foreigners, Derik from Germany and Thomas from Sweden and ten Thais, I have the company of thousands of mosquitoes, hundreds of cockroaches the size of ripe plums, and occasionally a family of fat rats push their heads up through a hole in the wooden floor.

I hadn't expected it, but there's almost a kind of solidarity among the people here. The Thais even share the food that their families and friends have brought them, and they try to communicate with us.

Those are the opening lines of Radek Hanykovics's diary. Dreaming of instant riches, he had taken a decision that he was to regret for the rest of his life. After a chance encounter in Amsterdam he agreed to become a drug courier, smuggling heroin from Thailand to Europe. He was carrying nearly 2.5 kg of the drug when he was caught at Bangkok airport in March 1996, trying to get on a flight bound for Finland. Eight years in a Thai jail followed, during which he kept a diary, recording details of prison life and also his gradual coming to terms with his crime. The diary was recently published in Prague by Albatros.

17th March 1996

I've sent three letters home and every day I long for a reply. I can't wait to read them, although I'm scared too. I know I deserve their reproaches. One of the guards gives out the letters, and before you get each letter you have to do fifty press-ups. Those will be the happiest press-ups of my life. Tomorrow I'll make my first trip to the courtroom. This will happen every twelve days for the next three months. Then the charges will be brought officially. I've been given my prison uniform (a t-shirt and shorts). Every day a group of several prisoners goes off to the court, and so I know that just like them I'll be put in heavy shackles, which they only take off the next day. The chain is just long enough for you to shuffle along. On Eric's advice, I've cut up a sock with a razor blade to protect my ankles from the shackles. I don't want to end up with an infection.

Radek Hanykovics,  photo: CTK
As you read through the diary it is hard not to feel a growing sympathy for Radek - as he describes and accepts his punishment in conditions that are sometimes almost medieval. There are surprisingly few moments of self-pity. His regret is palpable, and in a prison, where death and - ironically - drugs are all around, we witness Radek's growing sense of common humanity.

Once back home in the Czech Republic, he spent the last months of his life, when he already knew he was losing his battle against cancer, visiting Czech schools, telling his own story as a warning to others.

At one of literally hundreds of such meetings a few months before his death, Radek Hanykovics spoke to Radio Prague.

"Even if I just managed to put one school kid off drugs, then I think that telling my story would be worthwhile, but I also do it for my own sake, because it gives my life some meaning. For the first time in a very long time I feel useful again. I think it helps me to make up for the evil that I was caught up in."

In Thailand Radek was sentenced to fifty years in prison, and after a year in the custody centre Bombat Piset, began to serve his sentence at the Bangkwang (or Big Tiger) prison. In the diary he writes warmly of the support that his family continued to give him, and also the work of the Czech Embassy in trying to make his stay in prison in completely alien circumstances more bearable.

The Embassy was also instrumental in getting an international agreement signed between the Czech Republic and Thailand enabling prisoners to serve out their sentences at home. On the basis of this agreement, Radek Hanykovics and his fellow Czech Emil Novotny were sent back to the Czech Republic at the beginning of 2004. The last entry in the diary, on 12th January 2004, reads: "My destination may be another prison, but I feel like a free person. I'm flying home."

"The diary is my own authentic account. The publishers allocated an editor to the diary, and she checked through the script. She pointed to a few places where I'd described something from the point of view of a person who was actually there - and in describing the reality of prison life I hadn't written it in a way that someone who had never been there would be able to imagine. So I slightly rewrote those parts, so that the reader could imagine and actually understand what it was like."

And the diary has some extremely powerful passages. Here Radek describes the death of a prisoner with AIDS.

20th June 1997

Nicolas died last night. When I first saw him come into our cell, I never dreamed that his journey to death would be so short. Apart from a septic finger he was as good as normal. In recent weeks he'd been in the hospital wing a few times, but never more than a couple of days. He was always given a glucose injection - that was the most they did for him. The last few days he couldn't walk any more, and the guard in charge of the block allowed him to stay in the cell all day. He probably died in his sleep, maybe he wasn't even in pain. It struck me as strange, but a few of the heroin dealers started giving him free doses. I don't know if Nicolas had taken the stuff before, but now that he had nothing to lose, it struck me as logical. It made his journey to hell on a black horse a little less painful. It's said that crooks are a rough bunch, but I'm not sure that's really true. Nearly everyone was moved when he died. Just a few idiotic cynics welcomed his death. After all, there'll be more room now for the rest of us in the cell.

"The values that I held were turned upside down, when I realized that material things are not the most important thing. Of course money is important, but it's not everything to me as it was ten years ago. What's important for me is to be able to embrace my mother, to sow a bit of joy instead of bitterness and tears. It's also hugely important to me that after eight years I can look up into the night sky and see the stars. In prison in Thailand I never saw the stars."

For a while the story of Radek Hanykovics and Emil Novotny hit the headlines in the Czech Republic. On an official trip to Thailand in 1999, Vaclav Klaus - today Czech president, but then chairman of the lower house of parliament - briefly visited Radek in prison. The episode is described in the diary. The story of Emil Novotny, who was arrested at the same time, was made into a feature film. He is still serving out his sentence in a Czech jail.

Radek was less lucky. Two years ago he was granted a temporary release from prison to undergo treatment for lung cancer and cancer of the bladder - without doubt a legacy of his eight years in prison. He would have been due to restart his sentence in May this year.

His book survives, and it is a powerful legacy. Here are the words of the journalist Radek Hromusko in the short introduction to the diary:

"There is no sense in speculating about guilt and innocence. The diary is certainly not an attempt at self-justification. Just let yourself be absorbed by a book filled with fear, hope and despair. For me Radek Hanykovics is not some hero, who diced with death. For me he is a person who stands up, looks you in the eye and says: 'I did wrong.' This certainly isn't heroism, but I wonder how many of us would be capable of doing the same thing..."

11th January 2004

I've just been locked into my cell for the last time, and with a smile I relished the sight of the guard and his rattling keys. I know that I'll never experience this moment again. For the last time I've had to call out my number "sipdzet" - seventeen - which Vlado will be taking over from me tomorrow. In the morning, I'll be able to pick up my trousers from the head of the block; I've already cleared out my locker apart from a few bits and pieces and my washing things. All the letters I've received are packed up and I've given away everything I won't be needing any more. I've passed on the rest of my food to Vlado, along with my cooking things a few bits of clothing and above all my long-serving mattress with its luxurious pillow. It didn't bring me many sweet dreams, but maybe he'll be luckier.