April 2005

The Spice Trade case




At 11.30 a.m. on 19 March 2004, immigration police and assorted officials burst into a small travel company accusing it of child prostitution. Thus began a sordid case.

No evidence of child prostitution would ever be found, an outcome that would be quite apparent by the following day. Yet, nine months later, two men would be convicted of a substitute offence, which is why it was so sordid.

Now, this event took place in Thailand, and you're likely to say, this is what happens in a Third World country with a shambles of a judicial system and extortion as a police sideline.

But when you look closely at the details, the Thais didn't seem to have wanted to pursue the case. The Australians were pressuring them all the way. The question is: what is a modern police force from a First World country doing leveraging the absurdities of a Third World police and justice system to its own ends? 

The raid

Utopia Tours -- technically the company was called Spice Trade Travel and will be referred to as such in this article -- had, since it started in 1998, earned a good reputation for customised in-bound tours for gay and lesbian travelers. They specialized in Thailand and Indochina.

On Friday, 19 March 2004, the Thai authorities raided Spice Trade Travel's office allegedly because they were in the business of arranging sex tours for paedophiles.

In a statement issued a few days after the raid, Douglas Thompson, a director of the company, said,

Our office in the Tarntawan Place Hotel was raided, as was our nearby corporate office, by immigration police and people who identified themselves verbally as tourism authorities. Virtually all computers and files were removed. Except for our female bookkeeper, everyone who was in the office at the time was detained..... all company files and equipment were returned to our offices the same day.

But John Goss and Robert Scoble, both directors of the company, and Daniel, a new Italian employee, were detained overnight. 

The same afternoon, the police also raided Scoble's home.

The media extravaganza

The very next morning, Saturday, 20 March 2004, they were hauled before a press conference. Placed in front of them on a table, was the key evidence the police had found in their offices, which were 

nothing more incriminating than a clutch of gay magazines -- the kind sold openly in the night markets of nearby Patpong, 

-- Sydney Morning Herald (27 March 2004).

At the public humiliation, otherwise known as a press conference, seated L-R: Daniel, Goss and Scoble. 

On the same table at the press conference, was also laid out pornographic magazines and videos taken from Scoble's apartment. However, it should be noted, these were Scoble's private possessions, found in his home, and neither John Goss nor the company had anything to do with them.

The officer in charge of the press conference took the opportunity to paint a lurid picture of sexual enslavement of children, insinuating that these men were engaged in such base activities. Not surprisingly, the Thai media, always eager for the salacious, and even the Australian press, lapped it all up.

Some reporters arrived late, so for their benefit, the entire piece of theatre was repeated! Which tells you the theatre was the point of it all, not necessarily the facts.

In the accompanying article The Spice Trade case: Goss speaks, John Goss gives a more detailed account of what happened during the raid and the press conference.

The charges

Immediately after the press conference, Goss and Scoble were charged with trading in obscene material and employing a foreigner (Daniel) without a work visa. The police also said that investigations were continuing and additional charges were expected.

Already, even at this early stage, things looked very strange indeed. Consider this: there was an elaborate raid on an office, carting away nearly everybody and everything. But within the same day, the computers and files had been returned. Surely, these should have been critical sources of information if they genuinely wanted to build a case against the company and its directors. How could anyone have searched through so much information in one afternoon?

Typical cover of Thai Guys magazine (issue #23 of 2002). This wasn't the edition submitted as evidence.

The following morning, the only "evidence" police had was the Thai Guys magazine, which I can tell you -- and I have seen quite a few issues of it -- isn't anywhere near pornographic. If anything, I've always found it boring. Nor is it only available in Patpong; you can find it throughout Thailand. Yet ostensibly the reason for conducting the raid was that Spice Trade Travel were suspected of arranging sex tours for paedophiles. How a common gay magazine proved anything like that was laughable.

However, the police did say they were still continuing investigations. Perhaps more will be revealed later?

But if so, why the haste in calling a press conference to show off their trophy captives? Might some people be trying to show off their "success"? The Thai police? The Australian police?

The Australian interest

Robert Scoble had been on the Australian Federal Police's watch list for a long while, though Goss and Thompson weren't aware of it.

He had been Deputy Ambassador in Hanoi in the 1980s. Then he was linked to an internal enquiry involving supposedly objectionable photographs sent through diplomatic mail. Nonetheless, the departmental inquiry made no finding against Scoble.

He then moved laterally to government-owned Telstra, a telecoms company, holding the position of Regional Manager in Vietnam for a while, before moving to Bangkok and became one of the founding directors of Spice Trade Travel.

Many people assume that "gay and lesbian travel" must mean sex tours; some even assume paedophilia must be an ingredient. Absolutely not. Like most travellers, gay and lesbian travellers also have a wide variety of interests, e.g. culture, architecture, war history, beaches, scuba-diving or mountain-hiking. What they want is an agency whose tour guides are not uncomfortable with the fact that they are gay, so that they do not have to put up a heterosexual front all the time. As well: hotels that do not force gay couples into twin beds or stare at them strangely at the breakfast table.

Everybody who had been in contact with Spice Trade Travel (Utopia Tours) knew they were not at all involved with sex tours, let alone paedophilia. As Douglas Thompson said in his statement of 21 March 2004,

Those of you who know us personally or have been our customers know that offering alternatives to sex tourism is the very foundation of our business. We are not now nor have we ever been involved in prostitution, pairing of our customers with local hosts or hostesses, or in the exploitation of children in any way.

For many years now, there has been simmering paranoia in Australia about "pedos". In the 1990s, a Liberal Party member of the Australian parliament, Ken Aldred, charged that there were at least 20 diplomats and ex-diplomats in the Foreign service who were paedophiles, preying on helpless brown children. These accusations were repeated at regular intervals anytime anyone wanted to embarrass the government.

The Australian government has even stationed a team in Thailand to deal with this supposed national scourge. No doubt, the unfinished business of nailing Scoble, rightly or wrongly, remained on the "to do" list.

The Thai police themselves acknowledged that detailed intelligence had been provided by the Australians. As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (27 March 2004), 

Thai police said that while local tourist authorities had received unspecified complaints, a month-long surveillance operation that culminated in Scoble's arrest had been spurred by detailed intelligence supplied by AFP officers based at the Australian embassy in Bangkok.

The Australian Federal Police were proud that they played a part.

In the meantime, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Keelty told the press on Sunday that the arrest of Scoble in Bangkok on paedophilia charges was a warning to all Australians who sought to sexually exploit children overseas.

He said that the case was a good example of the type of joint operations the AFP was now conducting in Asia aimed at Australian paedophiles.

"Exploitation of children by Australians overseas is a high priority for the AFP and this recent arrest is also reflective of the importance the Thai authorities place on combating what is a terrible and unacceptable crime against defenceless children," he said in a statement.

"It is also a warning to other Australians who seek to exploit children overseas that the spotlight is now firmly on them."

-- Fridae.com, 25 March 2004

Even the Australian ambassador, it has been reported, personally went to the Immigration Department to congratulate the Thai officials on their successful raid on Spice Trade Travel.

Thai hospitality

But despite the best efforts of the Australian Federal Police, the fact remained that everything was occurring within Thai jurisdiction, and the Thais would doubtless do things their way.

At a bail hearing the same Saturday of the press conference, Goss and Scoble were freed on bail of 30,000 baht each. The magistrate also ordered their passports returned to them and told them they were free to travel, on condition that they reported to the court once a week for 3 months -- the allowed duration for the police to complete their investigations.

You can imagine that giving Scoble back his passport and telling him he was conditionally free, would appear to put at risk all the work that the AFP had put in. So there was a flurry of exchanges, the result of which was administrative action by the Thai Immigration Department. They invalidated both men's visas, in the process calling them "dangerous persons", which meant they had no right to stay in Thailand. Thus both men were made illegal aliens by this action and delivered to Immigration detention.

Goss, a U.S. citizen, would be held for 16 days before he would be released.

As for Scoble, he received anything but help from his government. Canberra cancelled his passport, without which Scoble had no right to stay in Thailand. He would be held in detention like an illegal migrant for nearly 5 months, during which he had a heart attack (June 2004). Finally, through the efforts of his lawyer, he was also released on bail.

By the end of the investigation period of 3 months, the Thai police had decided not to pursue the case. This should hardly be a surprise as no obscene materials were found in the raid on Spice Trade Travel (the first charge), and the complaint of work permit violation with respect to the new employee Daniel (the second charge) was a technicality, since it turned out that his application for a work permit had been in progress and his work permit was issued just a few days following the arrest.

Despite finding porn in Scoble's apartment, he was not charged for it, since private possession of porn was legal.

This outcome upset the Australian officials greatly, and reportedly, a further flurry of exchanges ensued.

Mr Scoble's lawyer, Ratpratan Tulatorn, claims Australian authorities pressured the Thai Attorney-General after the Thai authorities had decided not to pursue the charges.

-- The Australian, 13 June 2004.

Whatever it was -- pressure, inducement, enlightenment, who knows? -- a creative solution had to be found. Since the police had missed their deadline to send the case to the prosecutors, they took the extraordinary step of handing the case directly to the Attorney-General. Now, you would think that this lofty personage had bigger issues to deal with -- drug cartels, electoral corruption, political assassination, not to mention bombs going off in Southern Thailand -- but he wasn't too proud to attend promptly to the small, small issue of some gay magazines and a late-filing of a work permit. 

And so a trial date was fixed and the case went to court. To a sub-district court, the lowest level, like a traffic court. What a fall from where real child sex cases would be heard – the High Court!

The trial

The trial took place in the third week of November 2004. Here is a report from the Australian newspaper, The Age.

Thai officers fail to produce evidence against ex-envoy

No evidence linking former Australian diplomat Robert Scoble to the distribution of pornography was presented in the first day of his trial in Bangkok yesterday.

Despite broad claims when Scoble was arrested in March this year about the amount and graphic nature of pornography seized in a raid on his apartment, the prosecution could produce no evidence that the material was for anything but private use.

Scoble and business partner Charles John Goss, are charged with trading in and distributing pornography and employing an illegal immigrant in their business, Spice Trade Travel.

The trial took an odd twist when Judge Suttikorn Lipnoi, at the request of the defence, instructed journalists they were not allowed to take notes. "If I see anyone taking notes the punishment is imprisonment," he said.

The trial, in the Southern Bangkok subdistrict court, is being heard before a judge. Juries are not used in the Thai justice system.

For the first hour, prosecutor Manoo Kanchanawong questioned Inspector Choowong of the Immigration Bureau, who was part of the arrest team, about Scoble and Goss's homosexual lifestyle, rather than the evidence he had collected.


-- The Age, 18 Nov 2004

Even though the material found in Scoble's apartment had nothing to do with the company, they were still entered into evidence.

The only evidence tendered that came from the company were some of their promotional material (innocuous), pages from their website (innocuous), their campy Christmas cards (need I say it again?) and the Thai Guys magazine, which I have described earlier.

Amazingly, despite the magazine not containing any nudity nor anything really lewd, although it does carry a few ads from massage parlours or gogo bars amidst many other ads seeking the pink dollar for their legitimate businesses, Judge Suttikorn Lipnoi focussed on it. Among the pictures he considered objectionable was one of a shirtless model with a faint trail of hair descending from his navel. The judge felt that gay men would be aroused by the hair; therefore the magazine was pornographic. Because several copies of the magazine were available on a table in Spice Trade Travel's office for visitors to take, the company’s directors were guilty of commercial distribution of pornography.

I wish I had that very photo to put up on this webpage so that readers can judge for themselves, but here's a typical inside spread from issue #23 of 2002 issue: 

Much of the magazine is in black and white and the printing quality is often low contrast. Notice the quarter-page ad for Tawan Bar.

The judge did ask if Thai Guys was published by Spice Trade Travel. It wasn't. The judge also asked if the publisher of the magazine had been arrested. No, again.

Immediately one should wonder why, if the Thai police and prosecutors were so adamant it amounted to pornography, they didn't arrest the publisher. That they didn't must indicate that it wasn't considered porn. And then your wonder is compounded when the judge still ruled that it was porn.

Yet porn is not illegal, only trading in it is. But Thai Guys was a free magazine, and you'd think it pretty difficult to argue commercial profit if it was given away free. Nonetheless, the judge managed to overcome the difficulty.

Here is the relevant part of a report in the Australian newspaper, The Age, on the verdict that was delivered on 24 December 2004.

Judge Suttikorn Lipnoi, speaking in Thai in the Bangkok Southern Sub-District Court, ruled that though the website said nothing that explicitly encouraged gay tourists to come to Thailand for sexual services, persuading "tourists who are homosexual to come and experience Thai cultures" was itself evidence of obscene intent.

Further, their travel agency, Spice Trade Travel, had 100 copies of Thai Guys in stock, which it distributed to customers.

The judge listed magazine pictures of a half-naked man, a man lying on a sofa with his hand covering his crotch and two men kissing as evidence the material was erotic, and therefore obscene.

The court found the company focused on homosexuals. "To have so many obscene books, and the confession of both defendants that they do give those books to customers, I believe both defendants distribute those books for business purposes," the judge said.

Confession? What was there to confess? The magazines were meant to be given away.

On this amazingly flimsy basis, both Goss and Scoble were found guilty of disseminating pornography for profit.

Scoble pleaded guilty to a second charge of employing a foreigner in the business without a permit. Goss contested that charge but was found guilty anyway.

Scoble was given 7 months and fined 10,000 baht. Goss was given 8 months and fined 12,000 baht. He received a stiffer sentence because he contested both charges whereas Scoble only contested one.

However, the judge suspended both men's sentences, and Goss has appealed (I don't know about Scoble).

Was there any evidence of Spice Trade Travel being involved in child sex? No. But wasn't this what the original raid was supposed to be about?

See also the accompanying article The Spice Trade case: Goss speaks, for more first-hand accounts of the trial.

TAT also dances to the tune

With the circus playing, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) decided to appear on the side of law and order (whatever that means in Thailand). They notified Spice Trade Travel that their business licence was suspended for six months. The company has filed a lawsuit.  

The company continues to operate internationally with the full support of their Thai staff and longtime customers.

Goss and Scoble have resigned from Utopia Tours. Their work visas were cancelled by the government and they have returned to their home countries.

Patron and client

Now, take a few steps back and try to grasp the big picture.

Patron-client relationships are a significant feature of Thai culture. The social inferior tends to accede to the patron's requests, in the hope of reward and protection, without querying if anyone has the authority or the right to do what has been asked. To query might cause the patron to lose face, and if he suffers that through your impertinence, what sort of patronage benefits can you expect to receive?

In many ways, the Thais seemed to have being acting as the junior party in this case. As John Goss said in his email interview with Yawning Bread,

the police wanted this whole affair to be over as quickly as possible. The Thais got what they wanted from the press conference at the very beginning. Everything following it was just a lot of work for them. The head of the Immigration told me and one of the Thai directors of the company that he was sorry that they couldn't let me go but that there was too much Australian attention to the case, which was true, Australia even had one of their Federal Marshals, on taxpayer dollars, at every proceeding throughout the 10 months.

The Australians wanted Scoble convicted. When the Thais couldn't find anything incriminating in his apartment, the Australians leaned on them to proceed with charges related to Spice Trade Travel. To make it look as if the business was somehow involved, the other director, John Goss, was also charged. And when the prosecution's case looked ridiculously weak, the judge still found a way to rule that a non-pornographic magazine was pornographic, and even when given away free, there was trading in obscene material.

As John Goss said to me,  

[the judge] stated that there was no evidence that the business or website was involved in anything illegal, nor that the personal porno was illegal, but that the Thai Guys Magazines were "inappropriate" and therefore found us guilty...

The Australian press gasped aloud in court when the verdict was read. It was so clearly baseless.

Good clients do their patron's bidding. Never mind principle.

If the same things happened in Australia -- the press conference and character assassination after the arrest, cancellation of work visas without waiting for a judicial verdict resulting in months of immigration detention, suspending a business licence without just cause, and convicting anyone with such absurd evidence -- there'd be an outcry and heads would roll.

But Thailand is a seductive country, and being treated like a high-ranking patron is indeed too seductive to resist. Here, ends may justify means. First World rules are suspended, even for First World police forces.

© Yawning Bread