The Age (Australia), Mar. 6, 2003
By Martin Daly, with Mark Forbes
Two hundred and fifty lashes down, 50 to go, was how Melbourne man Robert Thomas last night described his ordeal of imprisonment and flogging in a Saudi Arabian jail for a crime he says he did not commit.
Mr Thomas has been caned on his back in batches of 50. The next caning could come at any time.
Mr Thomas, 56, from Caulfield, told The Age he has not bled so far and has remained conscious during the beatings, which Prime Minister John Howard yesterday described as “appallingly inhumane.” Mr Thomas, an anaesthetic technician and chief of department at the Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz hospital in the Saudi city of Bishah, was last year sentenced to 16 months in jail and 300 lashes by a Saudi court.
His wife Lorna, a head nurse at the hospital, was charged over the theft of hospital equipment and sentenced to 16 months and 300 lashes.
According to Mr Thomas, who has been working in Saudi Arabia for about 10 years, and previously worked at the Alfred Hospital and Cotham Private Hospital in Kew, the Saudi judge had accepted his not guilty plea.
“The judge said that he was sure I did not steal but I must have known (of the crime) as Lorna was my wife and (a) husband always knows what his wife is doing,” Mr Thomas wrote in a letter to his daughter Sarah Munro.
Mr Thomas spoke to The Age from the office of the prison manager and was guarded in his comments. He said he was being treated well. He praised Saudi authorities for their food and care and Australian embassy staff for their assistance.
The flogging so far was “not as bad as you would imagine,” but not a pleasant experience.
However Ms Munro, yesterday painted a grim picture of her father’s experiences. Before they took Mr Thomas to be beaten, she says prison staff and fellow inmates gave him a chance to lessen the pain by converting to Islam. He refused the offer.
Prisoners and guards gathered to see the flogging. “Because he is a non-Muslim, he gets a huge crowd when he is being flogged because everybody wants to see a non-Muslim getting lashed.”
In a letter to his friend, Hilary Ash from Elsternwick, Mr Thomas described the canings. “I would not let them see me wince,” he wrote. He said last night that he was held in isolation after his arrest and interrogated for seven days by staff employed by the company that runs the hospital.
He said he had no a lawyer at trial. The punishment is in accordance with sharia, the Islamic legal code derived from the Koran.
Mr Howard said it was appalling that Mr Thomas was guilty by association with his wife. “It does seem to be to me a cruelly disproportionate punishment according to the values and understandings of Australia and I’m sure many other people.”
Mr Thomas is concerned that anything he says might impact on his petition for remission. He said the flogging had been in the mid range of severity.
“Not pleasant, but bearable, even though the religious leader from the hospital made them hit me quite hard,” he told Ms Munro in a letter after he received the first 50 lashes.
“I am the only non-Muslim here. Big pressure to convert and my refusal creates some problems, as all (are) anti-Western here,” he wrote.
Mrs Thomas has received at least 200 lashes on the legs outside the jail. Mr Thomas, who suffers from varicose veins, was beaten in a punishment cell inside the prison.
Mr and Mrs Thomas, who married six years ago, are allowed to meet once a week.
Ms Ash says her letters from Mr Thomas reveal he was first placed in a cell with a gang of Saudi Arabian drug dealers and then moved to a cell containing seven Nigerians, one of whom speaks English.
Ms Munro believes the Department of Foreign Affairs could have done more to help her father. She says embassy staff gave Mr Thomas a list of lawyers, none of whom spoke English, and claimed staff did little more than write to Saudi authorities condemning corporal punishment.
Saudi Arabia’s senior representative, Mr Abdullah al Qordi, told The Age that DFAT was yet to contact the embassy about the issue.
Instead, Australian officials in Saudi Arabia had made representations for Mr Thomas’s release. Mr Downer’s office confirmed those representations had not been made to the most senior levels of the Saudi Arabian Government.
Foreign Affairs officials claimed they had taken a low-key approach to Mr Thomas’s case at his request. “We were advised he had decided to accept the verdict,” a spokeswoman said. “Our approach was guided by his wishes.”
However, the spokeswoman conceded that, by the end of October, Mr Thomas was supporting efforts to secure his release. Mr Downer said Australia had requested his release under a Ramadan amnesty in November. “We made representations asking for leniency in relation to the punishment, ” he said.
He defended the failure to take stronger action, saying the diplomatic balance in such cases had to be right and “not go over the top”.