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Heroin-smuggling NZ woman home from Thai jail
February 14, 2007

A New Zealand woman has been pardoned and freed from a Thai prison, where she spent the past 11 years for attempting to smuggle $4 million worth of heroin out of the country.

Mother-of-three Phyllis Tarawhiti, of Wainuiomata, Lower Hutt, was sentenced to death in 1996 when she was 38.

However, the Bangkok court immediately commuted the sentence to 50 years in prison, because Tarawhiti had pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle 250 grams of heroin, with a street value of $4 million, out of Thailand.

Her sentence was later reduced to 35 years on appeal.

At her trial, Tarawhiti told the Thai court she had fallen into drug-smuggling after a relationship break-up.

A number of other people were later convicted in New Zealand for their parts in the drug smuggling plan.

Back home in New Zealand, Tarawhiti told the Dominion Post newspaper she thought she would never be freed and when her royal pardon came through she felt numb.

In 2001, the Government presented a petition for Tarawhiti's pardon, once she had served a jail term equal to what she would have served in New Zealand for a similar offence.

But it wasn't until January 26 this year that Thai authorities accepted a new pardon application, also supported by the New Zealand Government. Tarawhiti was freed immediately and arrived back in New Zealand on February 3.

She is staying with family in Auckland.

Tarawhiti told the paper said she was still adjusting to life in New Zealand, and remembering what it felt like to be free of the Lad Yao Correction Centre in Bangkok -- nicknamed the "Bangkok Hilton".

"I need some time just to...try and get that other place out of my head," she said.

- NZPA

Kiwi drug smuggler awaits pardon
Ten years ago New Zealand grandmother Phyllis Tarawhiti was caught in Thailand with 250 grams of heroin strapped to her body. She was convicted of drug trafficking and still has 19 years to serve.

Tarawhiti is serving her sentence in Bangkok's infamous women's prison and is appealing for a royal pardon, which if successful could see her home before Christmas.

Klong Prem prison, home to 4,800 prisoners, is where Tarawhiti spends every day and night, sharing a room with 200 others.

In November 1995 Tarawhiti's life took a dramatic turn when she was caught trying to leave Bangkok with 250 grams of heroin. She was sentenced to death, but that was reduced to 29 years in jail.

Tarawhiti says they call Klong Prem prison the Bangkok Hilton because it is a very expensive place to live in.

"It costs money to live here - you pay for medical, you pay for clothing, you pay for food, you pay for everything," says Tarawhiti.

Tarawhiti had accepted an offer to come to Bangkok and she claims she didn't know she was being set up as a drug smuggler. She says she only found out, as heroin was strapped to her body.

"I would like my life here to be a testimony for other people outside so they don't make the same mistake because this is not something that you need to experience in your life. You don't need to put your family, your friends, your children through the hardship and the heartbreak," says Tarawhiti.

Once every year the king of Thailand grants the release of several hundred inmates serving time in jail - a royal pardon is granted solely at the king's discretion. It depends on the length of time a prisoner has already served and the type of crime that they committed.

Tarawhiti is eligible for a pardon but she's in a queue with hundreds, if not thousands, of other prisoners and there are no guarantees as to whether she'll get it.

The king usually reserves his pardons for the end of the year.

Tarawhiti dreams of spending Christmas with her children and grandchildren in New Zealand. But she also has to face the cold hard truth that realising her dream is only a remote possibility.

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