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British woman faces death sentence

Should it be one law for “us” and another for “them”?

A British woman, Shivaun Orton, has been arrested in Malaysia for possession of drugs including cannabis, amphetamines and Ecstasy. The drugs were found when police raided the backpacker resort that she and her Malay husband run in the east coast town of Cherating. As the haul included over 15g of heroin, she faces death by hanging if convicted.

It cannot be long before the inevitable cries of outrage that a British national, the "daughter of a nuclear physicist" no less (code: she's middle-class, not some ill-educated scrubber with loose morals with whose fate the right-wing papers would be less concerned), might suffer such a fate.

No doubt the possible penalty, and by extension Malaysia, will be described as "barbaric" and "medieval", and every instance of courts in the country producing ludicrous, over-the-top judgments will be dredged up and presented as the norm, rather than the exceptions that they are. Oh, and there will also be no misgivings at all about the prospect of her husband receiving the same sentence.

I touched on this issue last year when two US citizens were freed from a North Korean jail after crossing the border illegally and when a convicted drug-smuggler, Samantha Orobator, was allowed to return to the UK from Laos to serve the rest of her sentence. As I wrote at the time:

The coverage of these cases, as so often when westerners are arrested in developing countries, focused almost exclusively on outrage at the conditions in which they were held and the sentences they faced. The garb of human rights hid a less pleasant, unspoken assumption: your laws shouldn't apply to us.

Even though, as I pointed out, "few will dispute that a state has the right to police its borders or impose penalties for drug trafficking . . . many westerners seem to think, 50 years after losing their empires, that they should still have carte blanche to wander the earth held to a different set of rules from those of the populations they deign to visit." Two examples then followed:

Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made this point well in his memoir From Third World to First. "In 1993, an 18-year-old schoolboy, Michael Fay, and his friends went on a spree, vandalising road and traffic signs and spray-painting more than 20 cars. When charged in court, he pleaded guilty and his lawyer made a plea for leniency. The judge ordered six strokes of the cane and four months in jail."

Such sentences are common in the region; we hear nothing about them. But "the American media went berserk at the prospect of an American boy being caned on his buttocks by cruel Asians in Singapore", said Lee. Suggestions were made that the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation be moved from Singapore over this "barbarity".

The second example is particularly relevant to the Shivaun Orton case:

"Barbaric" was the very word bandied about by the Australian premier Bob Hawke when Malaysia hanged two of his countrymen for drug trafficking in 1986. But the more telling view was that of one of the defendants, Kevin Barlow. "Do you reckon they'll hang us?" asked his co-defendant, Brian Chambers. No, replied Barlow. "The Malaysians won't hang white guys."

Exchange the word "white" for "western" and you have, it seems to me, the real truth behind the protestations whenever one of our nationals gets banged up abroad for doing something they know they shouldn't have done. It's OK for them, but not for us.

As it happens, I don't think Mrs Orton will be hanged if she's found guilty – partly because she's a woman and the mother of two boys, and partly because the current prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, does not share the desire to take every opportunity to upset western sensibilities that characterised Dr Mahathir, who was in power at the time of the 1986 case.

Najib is from the old aristocratic, anglophile elite and was educated at Malvern College and Nottingham University. Whereas Dr M would have regarded David Cameron as colonising-class material and would have been very happy to irritate and embarrass him, Dato' Sri Najib prefers smooth relations and will not want the bad publicity that would accompany the hanging of a British national. If she is found guilty, pressure from the top will almost certainly result in a lesser sentence.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Perhaps the commentariat will decide that UK citizens breaking laws abroad just have to take the consequences, like locals do. If there is an outcry, though, and calls emerge for David Cameron or William Hague to intervene, my question remains the same – how on earth do we justify the expectation that it should be one law for "us" and another for "them"?

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