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French drug smuggler home after being held 18 years in Indonesia

© AFP/File | Michael Blanc with his mother, Helene Le Touzey, in Jakarta in 2014, when Blanc was freed on parole but ordered to remain in Indonesia

PARIS (AFP) - 

A Frenchman detained for 18 years after trying to smuggle drugs into Bali arrived in Geneva on Sunday and was on his way home after being deported in a case that sparked outrage in France over Indonesia's tough narcotics laws.

Police arrested Michael Blanc on the day after Christmas in 1999 at the tropical island's airport with 3.8 kilogrammes (8.4 pounds) of hashish hidden inside scuba diving canisters.

Blanc, now 45, was given a life sentence -- narrowly escaping the death penalty which has been handed to some other foreign drug traffickers, including two members of the notorious Bali Nine who were executed in 2015.

His prison term was later cut to 20 years, and in 2014 Blanc won something that few foreigners get in Indonesia -- parole, though he was not allowed to leave the country immediately.

The three-year parole period ended in July 2017, and he then had to wait another year while on probation.

The former cook was escorted by immigration officials to Jakarta airport Saturday accompanied by his mother, Helene Le Touzey, who gave up her life in France to spend nearly two decades in Indonesia campaigning for his release.

"He has indeed arrived in Geneva," Martial Saddier, a parliamentary lawmaker for Blanc's native Haute-Savoie region in western France who is close to Blanc's family, told AFP.

He was met by his father Jean-Claude Blanc and other relatives out of sight of the journalists gathered to cover his return, and they later left by a side door.

"I may be almost as nervous as he is," Jean-Claude Blanc told AFP while waiting for his son's plane to land.

Saddier said Blanc was going to remain several days in an undisclosed location. "He's going to recover from these past nearly 20 years before making any public appearances," he said.

- Years of efforts -

The life sentence handed out by an Indonesian court, which rejected Blanc's claim that he was carrying the drug-filled gear for a friend, was criticised in France as unduly harsh.

The country has some of the world's toughest laws against drug use and trafficking, and several convicted suspects have been executed since President Joko Widodo took office in 2014.

Paris raised the issue at the highest levels, with the then-prime minister Francois Fillon bringing it up during a visit to Indonesia in 2011.

In 2008, Blanc's sentence was cut to 20 years thanks in large part to his mother's efforts.

She later helped secure her son's parole in 2014, despite the fact that Indonesian law does not usually allow conditional release of foreigners after serving just two-thirds of their sentence.

More than 70 people, including 42 foreigners, are facing the firing squad for drug offences, according to the Coalition for the Abolition of Death Penalty in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Among them were foreign nationals, including two Bali Nine members arrested in 2005 for an attempt to smuggle heroin from Indonesia to Australia.

The executions of Australian ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran sparked diplomatic outrage and a call to abolish Indonesia's death penalty.

Although Jakarta suspended executions last year, Widodo has said the country is facing a "drug emergency" and previously ordered police to shoot traffickers who resist arrest.

High-profile cases like that of Australian national Schapelle Corby, who spent more than nine years behind bars for smuggling marijuana into Bali, have stoked concern that Indonesia is becoming a drug destination.

Corby was deported in 2017 after several years of parole.

© 2018 AFP