The amazing story of Benny Moafi: unbreakable, unshackled

James Austin Farrell interviews Benny Moafi who spent almost 10 years in various Thai prisons for a crime he says he didn’t commit.

By | Mon 28 Mar 2011

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. – From the film, Cool Hand Luke.

Benny Moafi has been a free man now for just nine months. He spent nine years, eight months, and two weeks in various Thai prisons for a crime he says he didn’t commit. He has an overwhelmingly large stock of evidence to prove his innocence and wrongful incarceration, all supported by lawyers, international human rights groups, and a faction of the Thai DSI (Department of Special Investigations). He has filed 207 legal cases and over 1,200 complaints against lawyers, the Royal Thai Police and the Department of Corrections, some of which he won, while others are pending, and he says he won’t stop until he has received justice and the perpetrators of his conviction have been exposed and charged. One police official and nine prosecution witnesses involved with his trial have faced charges of perjury made by Benny. He has become something of a bête noir to the Thai police after appearing on Thai television talk shows stating his case, and also appearing outside the parliament in Bangkok in his prison attire, shackled, holding a sign board with the words “Double Standards” written on it, demanding to talk to the PM about his case. The same day he also protested outside the offices of the United Nations.

Benny Behnam Moafi was born in Iran. His parents were political activists fighting against the regime of the ayatollah, which resulted in Benny’s mother and father’s imprisonment. Nine-year-old Benny, his sister, and his grandmother spent seven days in Evin Prison in Tehran. His family were eventually smuggled out of Iran and granted political asylum in Sweden where they made their home. On a stormy and atypically cold March day in Bangkok, Benny explained how a tsunami of corruption stole away his freedom and changed the course of his life.

“I married a Thai girl in Sweden and we decided to come to Thailand to start a business,” says Benny, “I bought a house, a car, a motorbike, and a restaurant/bar which were all registered. I invested 3.5 million baht in Thailand. I had a company work permit and all the legal documentation.” In front of him are a stack of copies of work permits, visas, receipts, and legal cases, all supporting his various claims. “The immigration police came to my bar and asked for payment,” says Benny, adding that the 6,000 baht stipend paid each month to the police was an unofficial protection payment. “I refused to pay, I had all my papers,” he says. This refusal did not sit well with the police.

The police eventually canceled his visa and issued a banning order stating that Benny was harmful to society and a threat to national security. Benny explains how the police had claimed his work permit was a fake, but he disproved this accusation. During his ownership of the bar he’d been to the police station twice after fights had broken out. These visits, he says, were one of the reasons they claimed he was a threat. “I left Thailand and went back to Sweden, but I came back here two years later after I had changed my name so I could reenter the country in order to sell my properties. When I was back in Thailand, money was stolen from my apartment in Bangkok by a cleaner, but after I reported this to the police they released her, so I made a complaint. At the same time I also had a complaint against the immigration police who had blacklisted me in Phuket.” Benny says the Bangkok police, after seeing the Phuket reports, told him to forget the money and go back to Sweden.

While Benny was busy with his ongoing cases against the police, he was asked to help two Iranian families who had paid a Syrian man (Benny refers to him throughout the day as “The Syrian”) for visas to live in Canada that turned out to be counterfeit. Benny, being Iranian and familiar with Thailand, was asked to intervene by a friend. The Syrian, Benny says, had taken 12,000 dollars from the families. “I knew one guy from the Thai immigration police who was a good man. He’s now a key witness in my case,” explained Benny. Benny and the two Iranian families met in the Honey Hotel in Bangkok on September 1st 2000. The families had prearranged a meeting with the Syrian. “I waited downstairs and called the immigration official and he went upstairs to talk to the Syrian and the families. I never actually saw the Syrian man. The immigration official told them to go to immigration to sort their problem out. The Syrian then assured the police at immigration he would pay back the families the money, but this never happened,” explained Benny.

So a complaint was lodged against the Syrian on September 4th 2000 with the tourist police. But on September 13th at 6 p.m. the Syrian filed his own complaint stating that when he was met with the Iranian families, they tried to extort money from him, he also claimed that Benny was in the room, which Benny categorically denies. Benny arrived home on September 14th to find the CSD (Crimes Suppression Division) had broken into his house (without a warrant). He was arrested and his valuables were all confiscated. “They took my gold, my mobile phones, my computers, and they took my BMW,” says Benny. It took him years, he explained, to get (some of) his assets back.

The families, without Thai visas or money, went back to Iran except for one of the men who stayed to try and retrieve the cash. The police then made a case against Benny that he was using a fake passport, but the Swedish embassy stated the passport was real. Following this the police then accused Benny of having a fake document among his belongings. The document was a French passport which the police said Benny had doctored. “It was a photocopy of a passport; you couldn’t even see the photo on it. The police didn’t say I’d tried to change the photo for one of me, just that I had changed a photo. So the court quickly dropped the case of the French passport.” The Syrian, Benny explains, then changed his statement and said that Benny had beaten him, and held a gun to his head, and that Benny and the families had taken money from him. “The daily report book at the police station when the Syrian first made a complaint has no record of a gun, violence, or stolen money,” says Benny. “The police changed the Syrian’s statement.” Benny’s co-accused, the Iranian man, left the country one month after Benny’s arrest. “He was accused of a crime but they allowed him to leave,” says Benny, “they wanted me alone.”

He looks at me emphatically, “Can you believe it, the Syrian says I beat him, took his money, held a gun to him, and then he waits 12 days and decides to make a complaint!” During this time the immigration official who had been helping the families was told by a higher official to stay away from the case. Benny has been trying for years to get his witness into a courtroom.

He says police told him daily while he was in police cells that if he paid 400,000 baht to the Syrian he would be released. Another Thai friend told him he could get him released for 500,000 baht. During Benny’s stay in remand prison he met several people who had been fighting cases for years. “I was sick in jail, and I lost 20 kilos in weight. I decided I’d pay the money, I gave a lawyer my money but he stole it. He took my car, too. I later sued him and got him disbarred. Now I think he sells noodles.” Over the years Benny would go through 18 lawyers, all of whom, other than one, he says were corrupt, lazy, or inept. His present lawyer has been dedicated in supporting Benny in what he has stated is a miscarriage of justice. He has even flown to Iran to talk to the witnesses and acquire affidavits.

Benny’s charge of armed robbery with a gun (unlicensed, so he received more jail time) was not dismissed, despite there never being any evidence: no gun, no proof that anything had been stolen, no injuries to the Syrian, no eyewitnesses. The trial was built solely on the testimony of the Syrian. “In court the Syrian’s statements didn’t even match what he said in the police reports, everything was different,” says Benny. The Swedish Embassy refused to help him. “They didn’t want to get involved and hurt their business relationship with Thailand,” says Benny, “they didn’t show up for any of the court sessions except one time when an embassy worker was a witness for the prosecution! I sued her later, I sued the embassy many times.” In spite of no evidence ever being presented against him, Benny served his full sentence, though with three amnesties it was reduced from 22 years to 9 years, 8 months.

In prison he learned to read and write Thai, in which he became fluent. “I found a law book in Thai and I started reading it every day. At first I’d understand only about 10% of it, but gradually it went to 20%, until I understood it all. I studied a correspondence law degree in Thai from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. The prison stopped me doing this. But I’d read Correctional Law and I made a case against the prison and I won.” Benny took his innocent plea to the Appeals Court for a retrial, where he was told by the chief of the court that he would get justice and a new trial.

Benny was not alone in his rage against the system. Fair Trials Intentional (formerly Fair Trials Abroad) supported his case. The DSI (Department of Special Investigations) told Benny he would receive justice. “The DSI told me they were going to re-investigate my case and send people to Iran to bring back the families as witnesses. But after the election, when PM Samak Sundaravej came to power, the guard was changed at the DSI.” Benny says the new establishment were not as sympathetic to his cause. “The new chief of the DSI was an ex-policemen involved in my arrest from the Crimes Suppression Division, so the reinvestigation was stopped.”

“I was tortured and beaten many times in prison; I don’t know how many stitches I’ve had. My nose was so badly broken I couldn’t breathe through it.” He shows me a line of crooked teeth where he says he was kicked uncountable times. “The officials hated me in the prisons because I kept suing them, but the prisoners I helped loved me.” Benny sued one prison for the price of bananas which he said were the most expensive bananas in Thailand. He was transferred from that particular prison. “They transferred me through 10 prisons and 30 buildings, every time I sued them I was transferred.” He says that the food was inedible in jail, and prison guards would scrape the meat off the food and give the remnants to the prisoners. “They made the food so disgusting,” he says, “that it couldn’t be eaten, so then the guards could sell the uneaten food as pig feed. Everything is for sale inside, it’s not the Department of Corrections, but the Department of Corruption.”

Benny has had many wrangles with the authorities on the state of food in the Thai prison system. A two year legal battle that Benny won saw to it that foreigners were allowed to buy food from Pizza Hut and KFC if they could pay for it. In another case Benny demanded the prison have new TVs to watch as they only had a few battered old TVs. The officials refused so Benny sued them after finding a legal loophole in Correctional Law statutes through which he could legally donate TVs to the prison. Two-hundred new TVs were soon brought into the jail, making Benny both new friend and new enemies. He also became known as the “Champion of Shackles,” having won a case against the use of shackles worn in Thai prisons which Benny stated was a violation of Thai constitutional law. Even though he won the case the Department of Corrections had it appealed and shackles were worn again until the case was finished. In another case Benny had the shackles removed from 111 prisoners with life sentences. He explains, “the sound of men walking with shackles on is a horrible sound. It reminds you of slaves in Ancient Rome.” His cases against shackles have now caught the attention of the UN, which has since urged Thailand to stop the use of shackles in prisons.

Benny met some well-known characters during his time in jail. He met Harry Nicolaides, the Australian journalist accused of lese majeste. Nicolaides has since written journalistic articles about Benny. He also met Victor Bout who was slightly irked that Benny was wearing shoes to court when prisoners, including him, were not allowed to wear them. “I made a case against the prison,” says Benny, “and I won. So I got to wear shoes.”

Benny realises what he is doing is dangerous, but he says in prison there were dangers every day. “The officials get someone to do their work for them in jail,” he says, and talks of being stabbed and beaten. He has also spent a lot of jail time in solitary confinement and survived three hunger strikes. He explains how one time in the hall, the governor announced to 800 inmates that Benny was to blame for bad conditions in the prison and if he were to be killed, then that would only be a good thing. He claims, however, that he doesn’t fear death: “I believe in destiny, when it’s my time, it’s my time.” In spite of this Benny is adamant that there are good people working in the system. “One of our governors, a DSI officer, my last lawyer, and a Bangkok Bank employee who kept my money for 10 years were lovely people,” he says. “I’m not blaming everyone, I’m not blaming Thailand, many Thai people have helped me and supported me for many years. A professor of law from Chiang Mai (now Khon Kaen) called a TV station where I was being interviewed to get in touch with me.” The Counter Corruption Committee have also helped Benny and pressed charges against a police officer involved with his case and also dismissed a governor from one of the prisons whom Benny had a case against.

Benny was told in jail by the government’s Secretary of Justice that he would receive justice and compensation, but when he asked the authorities for a visa to stay in Thailand on his release they refused him. “They knew as soon as I stepped out of jail I’d be taken to immigration and deported. To win my case I needed to be inside Thailand.” Benny, with a week left of his sentence set himself up to be charged with a misdemeanor in jail. “‘Charge me,’ I said. They didn’t understand why with only a week left of my sentence I’d get myself into trouble. I got an extra week on my sentence for that but when I was released they couldn’t deport me with a case pending. I know the law better than they do.” On the day of his release the police officer who had first charged him and tried to extort money from him came to pick him up at the prison. “I just screamed at him. He thought he could just take me to immigration and get rid of me. He doesn’t want any of this coming out. But by law I had to stay in Thailand.”

Benny is currently suing the policemen for manipulating evidence during his first arrest including changing dates on reports, and extortion. On May 20th the immigration official, Benny’s key witness, who has never testified, is due to appear in court. If the witness fails to show up in court the new judge has promised to arrest the man and force him into court. His case has appeared on an ITV documentary and he’s also been interviewed by Sorayut Sutassanajinda (Thailand’s most famous talk show host). His exposes on police corruption and the judicial system, along with his body of evidence has made him a menace to certain segments of Thai society: “I always look both ways when I leave the house,” he says laughing, “but the more public my case is, the safer I am.”

Not once during our long day’s conversation did Benny seem bitter or angry. He appears to be a spirited person and naturally good-humoured. Even when talking about torture and the lies that took away his 30s, he remained charged and cheerful.

“But I am angry,” he says, “I’m angry inside. You know if I’d have paid that money I wouldn’t have spent a day in jail. The corrupt policeman called me khi niew [stingy] for not paying the bribe. Had I done the crime and pleaded guilty, I’d have spent only three years in jail.” Benny says he won’t give up.

“Harry (Nicolaides) said to me: ‘You learned their system and you used it against them’,” Benny tells me as we eat pasta and steak somewhere under the muddy skies and concrete arches of a city that not long ago saw blood spilled on its streets from people unhappy with the system. “Now this story is more fun, now it’s my turn,” he says.

Presently Benny helps other foreigners in Thai prisons. “I’m in court almost every day,” he says, and his phone never stops ringing, which he picks ups and answers in different languages. “At the moment,” he says, “many foreigners and Thais are wrongfully imprisoned in jail without much hope. It was that hope, some help from others, that kept me from going mad in there,” he says and tells me all the horror you’ve heard about Thai prisons is true. The system has some good people working within it, he says, but the dark side is strong.

The documentaries about Benny can be found on YouTube.

James met Benny the following year, you can read his update here