Life on death row: British grandmother awaits firing squad

Sandiford in a holding cell on Nov 28, 2012.

Chatty, cheerful and brimming with mischievous gossip, Lindsay Sandiford sits cross-legged, knitting a pink baby blanket, and talks affectionately about her sons and the granddaughters she dotes on, whose faces smile out from pictures stuck on the walls around her bed.

"They are a joy - a real joy," she beams, gazing at the photos of the young cousins, aged one and six. "The younger one is marvellously bonkers. She's such a character. If I was to die tomorrow, I would be happy I've had that relationship with them. It is the most important thing in my life."

What might sound like a melodramatic slice of whimsy from an indulgent grandparent has a darker resonance when spoken by 62-year-old Sandiford, who sits knitting while on death row, in Indonesia. She could be taken to face the firing squad at any time.

Sandiford, from Yorkshire in Britain, was sentenced to death in 2013 for smuggling 10lb of cocaine from Bangkok to Bali and has spent the past six years in a five-metre-by-five-metre cell with four other women in the island's notorious Kerobokan prison, ironically nicknamed Hotel K.

Two friends from her time in jail have been taken away in the dead of the night to be executed and she knows that, at 72 hours' notice, she could be taken under armed escort to Nusa Kambangan, the country's execution island, 700km away, on the southern coast of Central Java.

A legal-cost draftsman in Cheltenham before she separated from her husband and moved to India, Sandiford was arrested as she arrived in Bali in 2012, carrying a suit­case with a false bottom stuffed with the illicit drug that fuels the holiday island's manic nightlife. The unlikeliest of mules, she had no previous convictions and claims she only agreed to meet syndicate members in Bangkok and take the suitcase to Bali after the Britain-based drugs gang threatened to kill her younger son if she refused.

Sandiford says she had been snared by the syndicate while she was living overseas and her sons, who were running wild in her absence, crossed swords with a drugs gang operating out of London and Brighton.

She was interrogated for 48 hours and at one point says she had a gun held against her head.

"I said, 'Go on. Pull the trigger,' and the officer kicked the chair beside me away," she recalls. "There was a tremen­dous bang and I thought, 'That's it - he's shot me.' I will never forget that man's face and he is always in my nightmares."

Eventually, she agreed to help police catch the syndicate members to whom she was delivering the cocaine and took part in a sting operation that saw three British expatriates living on Bail arrested for drug trafficking. Sandiford says she was promised leniency in return for helping with the arrests and even fancifully believed she might be freed and sent home. It soon became clear, however, that her ordeal had only just started.

She found herself locked up in Bali's Polda police station alongside the syndicate members she had set up for arrest - Julian Ponder, Paul Beales and Ponder's then-partner, Rachel Dougall - who, Sandiford says, "told me my kids were dead and I'd be next".

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In the months leading up to their trials, Sandiford railed bitterly against the injustice she felt she had suffered and struggled to find a lawyer to navigate Indonesia's notoriously arcane judicial system. Ponder, Beales and Dougall, by contrast, kept a low profile as bribes of more than HK$10 million (S$1.7 million) were rumoured to have been paid on their behalf.

When the cases came to court, Sandiford was tried for drug trafficking while the loss of vital evidence meant the other three Britons faced reduced charges. Sandiford was sentenced to death, the only woman to ever have received the penalty for drug offences in Bali, despite a recommend­a­tion from the prosecutor that she serve a term of 15 years. Ponder was sentenced to six years and Beales to four years for drug possession, while Dougall walked free after a year, for failing to report a crime.

Six years on, Ponder - once known as the King of Bali for his lavish lifestyle and unexplained wealth during his eight years on the island - is flitting between luxury hotels in Malaysia and Thailand and has a baby with a 23-year-old Asian wife he met inside Kerobokan, where she was serving a sentence for fraud.

Sandiford has refused consular assistance after, in an astonishing twist, the British vice-consul to Bali, married mother-of-two Alys Harahap, was dismissed in 2015, having been accused of conducting an illicit romance with Ponder during her official visits to Kerobokan. To make her plight worse, more than HK$400,000 raised by church groups and well-wishers for a final appeal against Sandiford's death penalty has been stolen by an Indonesian lawyer and legal assistant hired to challenge her sentence, both of whom have proved impossible to track down.

An outcry over Sandiford's sentence from overseas human rights lawyers and former British director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald, who argued that she had been treated with "quite extraordinary severity", has failed to get Sandiford taken off death row. Macdonald argued that there were "compelling reasons" to overturn her sentence, and said, "It is very difficult to catch anyone other than mules because they are the ones who put them­selves on the line. Unless they co-operate, the chances of catching those higher up the chain tend to be slender. But who will co-operate in Indonesia in the future if the pros­pect is the death sentence?"

The British government has nevertheless refused to fund Sandiford's appeal, despite being urged to consider doing so by the Supreme Court in London, whose five-judge panel ruled that "substantial mitigating factors" had been overlooked in her original trial.

Six years on death row have left Sandiford a calmer, more sanguine character than the woman arrested in 2012. In a series of meetings in January and February, an hour at a time spent in a stiflingly hot caged enclosure at the entrance to the women's section of Kerobokan, she makes it clear that she is reconciled to her situation.

"I really cannot face asking anyone for help or having to deal with another lawyer. I've been burnt enough times," she says. "I've had 10 different lawyers. I've had one steal all my money. If I actually turned my mind to the legal process, I would get angry and bitter and it would be destructive."

Neither does she want the British government to belatedly intervene. "If they started getting involved, they would probably end up getting me shot even sooner," she says. Her last contact from any British official was a letter from new vice-consul John Makin, in October 2016, asking her to contact him if she wanted assistance. Sandiford did not reply.

"I have days when I feel miserable and I think I do have an underlying depression, but I try not to let it take over my life or what time I have left, or whether it ends with a bullet. It's destructive to dwell on it, which is why I've kept busy to stay positive," she says. "You can either focus on the nega­tive or the positive and wallowing in misery doesn't get you anywhere except being more miserable.

"In spite of everything, I feel blessed. I have been blessed to live long enough to see my two sons grow up into fine young men and blessed to have been able to meet my two grandchildren.

"I do feel I can cope with it now. Execution won't be a hard thing for me to face any more. It's not particularly a death I would choose but, then again, I wouldn't choose dying in agony from cancer either.

"I had a friend from Scotland who died of breast cancer in Hawaii in the late 1990s. I was there when she died. She was only 44 and had her children fairly late, and they were five and six years old. The last thing she did was hold my hand and sing Mele Kalikimaka to me, which is Hawaiian for Merry Christmas. She never got to see her children grow up and she never got to hold her grandchildren. So when I think of her I realise I haven't got anything to complain about."

Sandiford has seen both of her granddaughters in Bali - the one-year-old visited with her parents for the first time in November - and she is able to make occasional phone and video calls to her children and grandchildren in Britain.

"What keeps me going is the fact I have seen my boys become men and become fathers and I have two beautiful granddaughters," she says. "I wake up and I see their faces and I smile. I am sad I can't be a full-time grandmother but I have lived long enough to meet them and hold them and tell them that I love them.

"Even if I have a really bad day here, I turn around in bed and see my grandchildren. I wake up and I look at their faces and I'm not religious but I honestly feel blessed. I regret I haven't been of more help to my boys, but I don't think they would be at the point they are in their lives if I wasn't in here. They wouldn't have grown up as much if I was there as a safety net for them. My sons are both doing incredibly well and they both want to seize life rather than waste it and watch it drift away in a haze of smoke."

Now grey-haired and suffering from arthritis, Sandiford has difficulty walking. She spends most of each day in her cell and jokingly admits the biggest issue affecting her execution may be the half-mile "walk of death" prisoners have to take to reach the forest clearing where the shoot­ings - up to a dozen condemned prisoners executed at the same time - are carried out. For Sandiford, though, the most appalling element of execution is not the mechanics of death but the process that precedes it.

"What I am uncomfortable about is the public humili­ation. You're dragged halfway around the country and paraded in front of the press before being executed. My attitude is: if you want to shoot me, shoot me. Get on with it. I've done a terrible thing, I know, but the worst thing is the ritual public humiliation they seem to enjoy."

She was close friends with Andrew Chan and Myuran (Myu) Sukumaran, members of the Bali Nine Australian drug-smuggling gang, who were taken from Kerobokan to be executed in April 2015. The loss of Chan, who spent 10 years on death row in Kerobokan and became a Christian minister before his death, at the age of 31, hit her particularly hard.

"I had a message from Andrew just after midnight on the day he was taken away saying, 'They're coming.' There were tanks rumbling outside the prison at 4am and that was just horrible. I got seven letters from Andrew while he was on Nusa Kambangan, before they executed him. He used to call me the Blue Whale because of the outfit I wore. He was funny. I still miss him."

Sandiford has the right to a final visit from her family before her execution and to have a spiritual adviser accom­pany her to the firing squad but insists she wants neither.

"I can't be dealing with other people and having to make them feel all right about it. I don't want any fuss at all," she says. "I do not want my family to go through what Andrew and Myu's families went through and the other families who were there. I've told my family, 'If you come, I will refuse to see you, so don't bother coming.'

"I've told them that when I'm dead there will be no ceremonies, no nothing. If there's any money left, spend it all in one day and have a party and enjoy yourselves. I've told them, 'If there's any weeping or ritual trees or flowers I will come back and haunt you.'

"I'm their mum and they love me and for me that's enough. And they know I love them and hopefully that will be enough for them."

Asked how she imagines she will handle the process of execution when the moment comes, she replies, "I should think I will be quite cantankerous and non-compliant" before breaking into raucous laughter.

The only prisoner awaiting execution in Kerobokan, Sandiford passes her days knitting in her cell and teaching other prisoners how to knit. They produce hundreds of beautifully crafted toys and clothes that are sold to raise money for charities and church groups, and for work to improve conditions on the women's block, which is over­crowded and has poor sewage and drainage, she says. On her block, more than 250 prisoners are crammed into the cells, some containing more than a dozen women, others just one. Inmates have to buy and prepare their own food, which they cook in a basic, chaotic kitchen area at the end of the building.

"I can't just sit here feeling miserable and sorry for myself, so I get on with what I like doing," says Sandiford. "I like knitting and I like cooking, so I knit and I cook. I've always got a project on the go. At the moment, I'm knitting 100 woollen pigs for a charity - I've got 10 girls working on it.

"I like knitting and I never had time for it before, when I was raising two kids. It's thera­peutic. They've started knitting in a lot of North American prisons because it's rhythmic and you're count­ing and you can't really think about anything else when you're counting, and it stops you feeling sorry for yourself, although, I must admit, I do have the odd day when I wallow in self-pity."

It is evident that Sandiford enjoys a warm relationship with the guards.

"My philosophy is they can't make my life any more miserable so if I don't want to do something, I tell them I won't do it and I ask them, 'What are you going to do about it? Shoot me?' And they just laugh and walk off," she says. "They are really, really good to me. They feel incredibly sorry for me. They know who I am. They know I don't cause a problem. They know I'm not out there fighting and I don't gossip or get involved in arguments. I don't complain about anything and they leave me alone."

Many of the women in Kerobokan are Indonesians who were driven into drug trafficking by poverty.

"They get horrendous sentences," says Sandiford. "There's one girl in here who's 24 and she got 12 years for having 30 grams of crystal meth. Another girl is 20 and she was sentenced to 20 years for less than a kilo of crystal meth. A kilo would have got her the death sentence.

"I try to help foreign girls because they've got no one else here to help them. Today, I made pumpkin soup and I made a great big cauldron and gave some to the Filipino girls and some to the Thai girls and some to the African girls."

She insists she rarely gives a thought to Ponder and the other members of the syndicate who are now free while she remains on death row.

"If I dwelt on it I could quite easily send myself insane with the unfairness of it all. But it is what it is. You can bash your head against a wall but it isn't going to change the situation I'm in," she says.

Post Magazine traced Ponder to a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, where he was staying on undefined busi­ness with his young wife and baby daughter. He declined to comment but told a friend he hoped Sandiford was spared execution, saying, "Lying awake every night for so many years thinking you could be taken away and executed at any time is already punishment enough."

A British diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sandiford had refused consular support since 2014 but that, "We are ready to begin providing it again if she changes her mind."

No official representations have been made by the British government on Sandiford's behalf since her case was raised by then-foreign secretary William Hague on a visit to Jakarta, in 2014, but a Foreign Office spokesman says, "We have repeatedly made representations about the use of the death penalty to the Indonesian government at the highest levels."

Indonesia has not executed a foreign national since 2016, when it sent three Nigerians to the firing squad, but it has not announced a moratorium. Popular with voters, executions are often conducted for politi­cal reasons and may resume following the presidential election, in April.

Back in Kerobokan, Sandiford has decided to get on with however much life she has left.

"We're all in jail," she reasons. "It's a planet and you can't get off it. It's just that your corner of it is a bit more open than mine.

"The one thing certain about life is no one gets out alive."

With that, she goes back to her knitting.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.