It's a sunny day in Bangkok. The wet season has finally made way to the dry and warm Thai winter. The city is calm, awaiting the herds of tourists who will arrive in December. It's even quiet at the normally buzzing Erawan shrine, in the center of the city. This was where a bomb went off last August, killing more than 20 people. Since the attack, the shrine has become even more popular with tourists.
On the opposite side of the road, Dutchman Johan van Laarhoven, 55, enters the Police General Hospital. Two weeks ago, the Thai criminal court found him guilty of money laundering and sentenced him to 103 years in prison (he'll be serving sentences concurrently, however, so he'll spend a total of 20 years inside). Johan claims to be innocent.
In 2011, Van Laarhoven sold the Grass Company—his chain of four coffee shops in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. At the time of the sale, Van Laarhoven was already living in the Thai city of Pattaya with his wife Tukta and their two young children. Not long after that, the Dutch prosecutor's office (Openbaar Ministerie) launched an investigation into the Grass Company for money laundering. During years of investigation, no evidence was found that could convict Van Laarhoven or his business partners in the Netherlands.
Van Laarhoven and the Openbaar Ministerie agreed that if they ever again wanted to interrogate him about the case, he would report to the Netherlands within five days of their request. It wouldn't come to that: As Dutch regional network Omroep Brabant reports, after a request from a Dutch lawyer working for Openbaar Ministerie, the Thai authorities launched their own investigation into Van Laarhoven. Several days later he and his wife were arrested at their Pattaya home.
Fifteen months later, Van Laarhoven has been convicted for spending money in Thailand that he earned by selling cannabis in the Netherlands. It should be noted that the sale of cannabis in coffee shops is legal in the Netherlands and the Dutch "gedoogbeleid" policy ensures that authorities turn a blind eye when coffee shop owners buy stock from illegal dealers. The Thai court's verdict, however, ignores that policy, concluding that money earned with the sale of drugs has to be illegal money. Therefore, spending that money is a crime.
That's the story that got me to Bangkok's Police General Hospital, which Van Laarhoven visits weekly due to his deteriorating health. I had attended the sentencing of Johan and Tukta at the Bangkok criminal court as a reporter for a Dutch network the week before. Since I was the only journalist there, Johan's family approached and asked me if I'd like to interview him. They are desperate for media attention, because they feel abandoned by the Dutch state. They told me that Johan would be visiting the hospital on a given day and that it would probably be possible to speak with him for a while without having to first submit an interview request to the Thai authorities.
And so I find myself sitting next to Johan in a hospital waiting room—my recording device hidden underneath a notebook. I start with the question that I feel makes the most sense given the setting: "How are you doing?" But even a simple question like that seems a bit much given the circumstances and Van Laarhoven needs some time to find the words. After a while he says: "I wouldn't know. As long as I don't think about it, I'm OK. Then I think about my wife and children, about my 83-year-old mother, my entire family—my life has been ruined. And for what?"
Van Laarhoven's wife has also been convicted—she's looking at 12 years in prison. Tukta's signature is on the contracts that bought them their property in Thailand. As a Thai citizen, she had to sign because Thai law doesn't permit foreigners to purchase land. "If I had known I would be charged with money laundering, I would have never let her sign those papers," he says. "We decided to go to Thailand in 2008. My wife was pregnant and I didn't feel the need to become the richest man alive. I had plenty of money—more than I could spend. We chose to live in Thailand, because we thought it was a place where we could spend all our time with the kids. When the banks in Europe collapsed, I thought I'd be better off moving and investing my money in land. I thought that would be a smart move."
VICE: A week ago, a Thai court sentenced you to 20 years in prison. Were you prepared for that outcome?
Johan van Laarhoven: No. I was convinced we would be going home. That's because I know I'm innocent, but also because there simply hasn't been any evidence that we did something wrong. Even the prosecution witnesses said they didn't know what law we had broken in Thailand and what it is that we supposedly did wrong in the Netherlands.
Then why do you think you were convicted?
From the start I got the feeling we were being heavily screwed with. But I don't know why. I didn't do anything wrong. If you look at my chain of coffee shops, our business model was built in such a way that it could be applied in the Netherlands and abroad. The police visited our shops when they gave tours to foreign police forces or government officials. We were heralded as a positive example. I'm still using the term "we," because despite selling I still see the company as my life's work.
You've been convicted for money laundering.
No money has been laundered. And even if everything the Dutch prosecutor suspects us of was true, my lawyer says I would be facing a year in a Dutch prison at the most. But most of what they accuse us of would have happened after I sold the company. I have nothing to do with any of that. And how could I have been laundering money if I was paying my taxes over it? If a crime has been committed in my case, then the Dutch tax authority is an accomplice. The Dutch Supreme Court has ruled that income earned from the exploitation of a coffee shop is legal, even if there is too much cannabis in stock. If you look at that jurisprudence, it's clear that this is definitely not a case of money laundering.
But that didn't stop the arrest of you and your wife in the summer of 2014.
That's when I realized the Dutch prosecutor screwed up this case big time. All of a sudden, 120 cops and every journalist in Thailand were on our front lawn. The officers were very friendly after the arrest. They even said we would probably be going home on bail in a couple of days' time. But that didn't happen and it slowly dawned on me that this might be more of a political case for Thailand, than an actual punishment for anything.
After your conviction last week you got transferred to a different part of the prison from where you spent the last 15 months. Had you made any friends in your previous cell?
I talked to a couple of people, yes. Most of the convicts are murderers, rapists, and gang members, though. Some have tattoos all over their faces. There were some foreigners in my cell and we talked a lot, mostly about our cases. But now that I've moved, I have to start all over again. I share a cell with 40 other men. One is from England, but he's in for selling amphetamine—not really my kind of guy, I don't like hard drugs. The rest are all Thai, and a lot of them are political prisoners.
That sounds like people you wouldn't mind sharing your cell with. Better a white-collar criminal than a murderer, right?
Yes, of course. There are some former policemen in the cell too, but it's all political bullshit. Many of them are so clearly wrongly convicted. Sure, they may have been involved in some mild corruption cases but if that were an offense, everyone in Thailand would be in prison.
How did the transfer happen?
It was the morning after the verdict, so it was one big shock after another. They didn't announce it, they just came by and took me away. When I didn't get my stuff fast enough the guards' helpers threw my stuff in a bag. And there I went.
You have decided to appeal the verdict. Was that your only option?
It wasn't really a choice, because it's the only way to get an acquittal. But it's a fucked-up system, designed to let the government win. If you accept a guilty plea, you automatically get 50 percent off your sentence. That means a lot of people plea guilty even when they aren't.
The same goes for an appeal. The king pardons prisoners every year but you can only be considered for a pardon if there isn't an ongoing case. And in order to have a bigger chance of a pardon, you have to work on your ranking, which can be "medium," "good," "very good," or "excellent." If you have an excellent ranking, the time after which you can apply for a pardon is half as long. But as long as the appeal is under consideration, I'm not allowed to work on my ranking.
Would you transfer to a prison in the Netherlands if the opportunity arises?
I have no clue. I don't think so. I can't leave my wife and kids behind.
The last days in court were the only moments you could see your wife—while your hands were tied to hers with a pair of handcuffs. What were those moments like?
Very intense. You try to talk to each other but it's nothing resembling a real conversation. But it's better than nothing. I always look forward to seeing my wife, even if it's for a very short time. Last week was ridiculous: Five minutes after the sentencing we were separated. We were both in shock. I have no idea when I will be able to see her again.
The appeal will be done in writing, so no more moments in court.
Yes, and the appeal can take from one to three years. If it really does take three years, that means I'll be in prison for almost four and a half years. For what? I'm innocent.
What's your daily life in prison like?
It's not really a life. I don't know how to describe it, exactly. There is no place to lie down, it's always hot, there is nowhere to sit, the food is terrible. In the cell I was in before, I was allowed to see a visitor every day but that has been cut down to once a week now. The only thing to do is wait until the day is over, and then there's the next day.
I can imagine that makes a hospital visit the highlight of your week.
That is true. At least here I can talk to someone without having bars in between us.
Your eldest son is allowed to visit you. Do his visits help keep your spirits up?
Yes, but tears build up when I think about what this does to my children. My two younger kids still don't know where their parents are. And what can we tell them—"Mummy and daddy are in jail"? If they ask why, we can't even explain it. We always thought we'd be released soon and that's why we didn't say anything to them. But time goes by and we're both still behind bars.
Your brother, Frans, said on Dutch TV last week that it would be more humane if they had given you the death penalty.
If I didn't have any wife and kids, I would've taken care of that myself. But I can't do that to them. And I still expect and hope that something or someone in The Netherlands will save us from this. That's where it all went wrong—the Dutch prosecutor gave the Thai court incomplete information. I hope some Dutch politicians will have the guts to finally put an end to this.
By Alexandra Verwaal - Vice/Dec. 3, 2015
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