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‘I Saw Many Prisoners Led Away to be Hanged’: A Britain Pensioner Inside an Egyptian Prison

As COP27 continues in Egypt, Duncan Campbell talks to Charles Ferndale, sentenced to death in Cairo in 2013

Charles Ferndale on trial in 2011

‘I Saw Many Prisoners Led Away to be Hanged’A Britain Pensioner Inside an Egyptian Prison

As COP27 continues in Egypt, Duncan Campbell talks to Charles Ferndale, sentenced to death in Cairo in 2013

Charles Ferndale, described at the time as a 74-year-old wildlife conservationist and occasional Guardian writer, was sentenced to death in Cairo in 2013. Every week, he would be taken from his cell and weighed to make sure that the drop from the scaffold would break his neck. Now free after serving more than a decade in Egyptian and English jails, he explains how he, a former art college lecturer and an expert on endangered raptors, ended up on death row – and how he survived.

Most urgently, he is very anxious that the world should know about the fate that awaits the tens of thousands of men and women who challenge the Government of the country that was chosen to stage the COP27 UN climate change summit.

“It would be very shameful if Egypt staged COP27 without the world being aware of what kind of a Government was the host and the terrible price being paid by anyone who opposes it,” he says. “The death sentence is President al Sisi’s favoured sentence. I saw many prisoners led away to be hanged. They were all young political offenders.”

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We had first met through a former student of Ferndale’s, a loyal friend who had kept in touch with him for more than half a century. He had just recently emerged from prison. How this well-educated and articulate man ended up with a death sentence seemed such a strange tale that I suggested that he should write it down.

“Twenty-third of April 2011 was the day on which my crew and I were arrested on a yacht in the Red Sea, while carrying three tons of hashish, bound for Egypt,” was how the first paragraph started. “The yacht was called Liberty.”  More than 30,000 further words poured out. 

We met again at a seaside café on the south coast, where he now lives modestly, to go through some of his writings and to excavate his past. 

He was a South African country boy, the son of anti-apartheid activists, who had grown up in a rambling farmhouse, where snakes chased rats in the ceiling, in the Drakensberg region of Natal. He came to Britain in 1958 to study at the Royal College of Art. His contemporaries included David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj, the latter of whom told him frankly that he would never make a living as an artist. “He was right – I was outclassed.”

Kitaj advised him to go to Ruskin College, Oxford, to study for a graduate diploma in politics and economics. He was accepted by Merton College to do a B.A. in philosophy, psychology and neurophysiology. While there, he met Howard Marks, who was setting up his international cannabis-smuggling business. 

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When Ferndale ran out of grant money, Marks suggested that he could bring cannabis in from Ireland where it was being landed by boat. His preferred method was to hide the drugs in the generous mudguards of a Saab which he would then drive to the ferry from Stranraer. So began a career of smuggling cannabis.

“I think I can honestly say that, whatever good I may have done in my lifetime, I was only able to do because I could finance it with the modest profits I had made by smuggling,” he wrote.

“My new job took me to Pakistan before Islamic extremism had arrived. I turned my two rented houses in Karachi into sanctuaries for Pakistan’s nomads of land and sea. They brought the news from Central Asia, India and Iran and they brought art works from all these places: beautiful weavings, highly decorated dresses, headwear and primitive jewellery to be worn on ears, heads, fingers, ankles and toes; bells that tinkled as they walked. Simple musical instruments. The houses in Karachi were like a miniature version of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Many of my visitors were snake-catchers so there were bags of live snakes everywhere. I had to move the bags off chairs so that guests could sit down safely.” 

His childhood interest in wildlife was focused in Pakistan on the plight of raptors whose extinction by the Gulf-Arab-financed illegal trade in them threatened their existence.  His homes in Karachi became veterinary clinics for sick and injured birds which would be treated and then released back into the wild. His house and gardens were also popular with affluent Pakistanis because, with alcohol banned for Muslims by the then Pakistani leader, General Zia Ul-Haq, they could demonstrate their status by being indifferent to the law and drinking their whisky in the relative safety of his house.

“As a nominal Christian, I was permitted alcohol. On many occasions, my servants and I carried mullahs (religious leaders) dead drunk into their cars which had been waiting with a driver.”

A Yacht Called Liberty

Ferndale’s cannabis smuggling took him to Australia, but the supply boat into which tons of cannabis were hidden was seized in the Pacific Ocean off Chesterfield Reef. He liked his genial Australian legal team but decided to plead guilty. His lawyer told him that he seemed to imagine himself to be a sort of  Robin Hood and the Australian judge called him an “adventurer”.

He spent five-and-a-half years in jails there and was deported to England at the end of his sentence, changing his name by deed poll from Raymond Woodhead, under which he now had a criminal record, to Charles Ferndale on his return.

Back in England in 2008, prompted by the news that Prince Andrew had been given a falcon by the rulers of Abu Dhabi, he wrote an article for the Guardian, under the headline ‘Prince Andrew, Give That Falcon Back’. His byline suggested that he was now “a retired businessman, now a freelance journalist, with a special interest in nature conservation”. 

The article spelled out his case: “Every year, hundreds of falcons have died, and still die, through mistreatment (starvation, disease and injury) by the poor, by the greedy and by ignorant  raptor traders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Arabia, urged on by the ugly and expensive vanity of what is rather horribly looked upon as a noble desert Arab tradition.’’

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It was then that a friend gave him an old yacht called Liberty, which he says he was planning to take to the gulf of Aqaba for scuba diving. He and his crew of three men from the Seychelles reached Aden through seas pirated by Somalis and patrolled by Western naval vessels. It was there, as the yacht’s engines broke down, that he found himself marooned in Aden and out of money, fuel and water. 

“We had sailed 7,000 miles from the Cape of Good Hope almost without stopping with an engine designed to take yachts only into, and out of, ports. Our engine was a continuous worry. We reached Aden port, but I was without significant money. I called a man, G, whom I knew in Cairo, and asked him to lend me $5,000. He said ‘I will do better than that. If you collect some hashish in Aden and transport it to a place offshore Egypt I shall collect it there in a small wooden fishing boat. Then I will give you the balance of the cost of delivery and a share of the profits when the hashish is sold’.” 

The deal was that G would not only give him the $5,000 and would also would give him a share of the profits when the hashish was sold; this share would also finance wildlife conservation, thus solving his other main problem. He had known G for about 10 years and had been assured by others that he was trustworthy. He had also been a guest in G’s house in Cairo. According to Muslim tradition, that conferred upon G the obligation to protect his guests.

The money arrived and three tons of hashish were duly loaded onto the yacht in broad daylight in Aden harbour. But he was to be betrayed by G. Armed police were awaiting them at sea. “They opened fire on us. They had been told we were heavily armed.”


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It later transpired that the Egyptian authorities wanted it to be believed that Ferndale’s yacht, rather than being crewed by three unarmed Seychellois and an Englishman was in the hands of armed gangsters. He and his crew were imprisoned in various jails, ending up in Quenna jail and being transported to Hurghada for trial appearances. 

“All the lawyers to whom I spoke demanded massive fees. To them, we were rich dope dealers. One asked half a million dollars, paid in advance, to defend us. Our trials were conducted in Egyptian Arabic. There was no translator. No one in the court asked us any questions. Occasionally fellow prisoners, locked in the same steel cage as us, translated what was being said. The only way out for us would have been to have paid to have the evidence disappear or to have paid for the chief judge’s ‘sympathy’.” 

The trial took place in Hurghada and the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Coverage in the British media at the time was limited but sympathetic and suggested that Ferndale had believed that he was transporting incense, a traditional export from Aden, which he was using as his defence. The Daily Mail reported that a “British pensioner” had been sentenced to death and quoted a Foreign Office spokesperson saying that they would “do our utmost to prevent this execution”.

“After our death sentences, I was separated from my crew. We were each kept in solitary confinement in a row of cells painted scarlet, the same colour as our condemned person’s prison uniforms (a custom passed on from British days). Every Thursday we were weighed to ensure our weight was enough to snap our necks when dropped at the scaffold.

“I planned my suicide carefully for months. I continuously complained of an inability to sleep for which I needed sleeping pills and was given two every night, accumulating fourteen. I swallowed them all. In my suicide note I said my crew had no idea that hashish would be loaded on board the yacht. I had told them it was incense, a valuable traditional export from Aden harbour… I was not depressed. I was thinking clearly and had simply decided not to allow the Egyptian authorities the satisfaction of killing me.

“If my sentence were commuted to life – 25 years – I could still see no point in living the rest of my life in Egyptian jails. Furthermore, if I died, there was a chance my three Seychellois crewmen would be released and my death might redeem me a little in their eyes. They had agreed to sail with me because they had been unemployed for months and had families to feed and to educate. I felt responsible.

“Interestingly, the Egyptian medical authorities made no attempt to stomach-pump me nor to save my life. Fourteen of the jail’s sleeping tablets had simply not been enough to kill me. Instead, after 24 hours I woke up refreshed. As it happened, the crew were eventually repatriated to the Seychelles soon after my own repatriation to Britain.”

The Arab Spring

In the wake of the Arab Spring protests in Egypt in 2011, tens of thousands of government critics had been jailed and many are still behind bars. The current estimate of the number of political prisoners is 60,000, with recent attention focusing on the case of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the British citizen who went on hunger strike earlier this year. He expects never to be released.

Critics of the Government are routinely jailed for the offence of ‘spreading false news’. When Ferndale’s sentence was commuted to life he found himself in Political Section One, where the well-connected prisoners were kept.

“I think I owed my transfer there to the kindness of a prison governor. He said fundamentalists were planning to kill me because I never prayed – so  I had to be moved. 

“Torture was routine. There were agonised cries from people being tortured in the Black Hole (the Tadeeb) five days a week. Thursdays and Fridays were quiet, presumably because that is the Muslim religious weekend. When I asked other prisoners what was going on, they said, matter-of-factly,  ‘people are being tortured.’ They were so accustomed to torture and executions that they were not even a subject of conversation.While eating lunch we heard the cries of tortured prisoners. It was unbearable but inescapable. 

“I was not entirely without pleasures. During my time in Political Section One, I adopted about twenty feral cats who leapt through an opening in my metal prison door and slept on my bed. I fed them on the meat we were given. One day I discovered that the prison guards had beaten most of my cats to death by taking them by their hind legs and swinging them hard against big tree trunks. When I asked the guards why, they smirked and said that I preferred the cats to them.” 

 “When I was in one of the many jails at Tora Maadi, a prison complex near Cairo, from time to time a helicopter would land in a field close by. Most of the prisoners would cheer quietly. They were convinced that their friends, or some armed radical group, had come fully equipped to rescue them. And whoever was rescued would ensure that all the other prisoners would be saved with them. Dreams like these kept us alive. Improbable offers were often made. I was offered frequently the option of the whole jail being stormed by heavily armed hostile tribes. They would liberate me and escort me to the Sudanese border with Egypt.  The cost of this service was never less than a million dollars ‘paid in advance.’


How did Ferndale survive?

“Among the good books the British Embassy staff brought me was Helen Gardner’s The New Oxford Book of English Verse. Glorious!  I set about learning by heart as many of the poems I loved as I could on the assumption that if the book were taken from me, I would still have the memorised poems. A favourite was Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage. The story goes that Raleigh wrote the poem shortly before his execution by King James I. Since I was waiting to be hanged, I felt a distant kinship with him. Raleigh had done his best and had nevertheless been decapitated for failure to please the king. It seemed to me that Egyptian laws were no better.” 

The novels of George McDonald Fraser were a constant and welcome companion. 

After six years in Egyptian prisons, Ferndale was transferred to serve the rest of his sentence in Britain, where many of his fellow inmates were also serving time for drugs offences. Over the last few years, there have been significant changes internationally in the laws regarding cannabis, with a growing number of countries and eighteen states of America, decriminalising it. Ferndale was impressed by Johann Hari’s book, Chasing The Scream, which advocates the legalisation of all recreational drugs in order to halt the drug trade and its related vices.  

“I have never said that cannabis is never harmful. That question can only be answered when all aspects of cannabis use are studied by impartial and compent scientists. In recent years, however, in some countries the beginnings of enlightenment can be seen. Many beneficial medicinal uses of cannabis and its derivatives have been discovered, one of these being its use as a none addictive painkiller, much safer than opiates. 

“Against the possible harms done by using cannabis I had to weigh the good I might do by spending the money I made smuggling it.  I could not have done even the little I have done to protect falcons had I not smuggled hashish. And I have no regrets other than not having made more money as a smuggler than I did. I did not enjoy smuggling hashish, but I was proud of what I did with the money.”

In Britain, he served out his sentence in Long Lartin, Wayland and Ford. Books still play a major part in his life. I saw, as we ate lunch in a seafront cafe, that he had Richard Dawkins’s A Devil’s Chaplain and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman to hand in his bag. So he walks daily along the seafront and reads and reads and walks and walks. He has been twice married and has two children but does not want them involved in his story or for them to be further troubled by what has happened to him. So how does the man whose liberty came to an end on board Liberty see his future?

His main concern remains that the “greenwashing” attempts of the Egyptian government through Cop27 should continue to be vigorously exposed. “In Egypt, the law is simply an instrument with which al-Sisi terrorises his critics. Contrary to his claims, torture in Egypt is seldom used to extract confessions of Islamic plots, it is used primarily to punish the critics of his tyranny,” says the man who for years heard the daily evidence of that very torture.

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