Nightmare in Laos by Kay Danes

Nightmare in Laos is a frighteningly true story of an Australian couples 10 month stay in Laos' Foreigners Prison, after they were falsely arrested in 2000 for stealing sapphires. Danes' story provides reasonably graphic descriptions of the conditions within the prison and her dealings with other prisoners, the Laos authorities and Australian embassy staff. Told in an emotionally charged fashion, this is a book that will leave you seething with frustration at the injustice of the situation that they find themselves in. 

Danes has written and published books on the events of what transpired under a range of different names. These were first published as Deliver Us From Evil before being re-released in the UK and Asia as Nightmare in Laos.  In 2009 a more comprehensive account of their ordeal was republished as Standing Ground. The version I read, Nightmare in Laos, was purchased while on honeymoon in Thailand in 2008. Given the nature about which Danes writes, it was an interesting choice and one which I've subsequently re-read having forgotten most of what took place from that earlier reading!

Prior to their arrest the Danes were running a company which provided security to local and foreign businesses in Laos, one of whom was Gem Mining Lao who had been granted a 15-year concession from the Lao government to mine sapphires at Huay Xai. The foreign owners of this company fled Laos amidst charges of embezzlement at which point they appointed Kerry and Kay Danes as "caretakers" in their absence. With no one else in Laos available to be held accountable for the previous owners actions, the Laos secret police subsequently arrested the Danes and found them guilty of an investigation that had yet to be completed and which the authorities had yet to charge them for.

While awaiting charges to be made, the Danes are sent to Phonthong Prison, also known as the Foreigners Prison. Separated in the prison, each is forced to share a cell room measuring 3 metres x 4 metres with 5 or 6 other prisoners. Danes writes about the appalling conditions and we soon find out that the majority of prisoners have had no passed sentence and hadn't even been to court. Torture was used constantly in the prison, which combined with everything else resulted in Danes sufferuing from anxiety attacks, PTSD and losing 15 kilograms over the she spent incarcerated.

Danes story concentrates solely on her time in Phonthong and does a great job in bringing to light extremely serious human rights violations. However, despite telling an extremely brave story, the quality of writing isn't as good as other foreign prison stories, such as Marching Powder or The Damage Done.  Not that there necessarily needs to be any comparison, as Danes' story is differentiated not least by the fact that she and her husband didn't actually commit any wrongdoing.

Nightmare in Laos is a thought provoking read that will make you question how you might react in similar circumstances should your personal freedom be inexplicably taken away.  Danes has written an important story full of raw emotion on events that changed her life forever, and resulted in her becoming a human rights advocate in addition to being named as an Australian of the Year state finalist. We should all commend Danes for her courage in writing this story and for her subsequent actions in speaking up for those who can't.

3 and a half stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by Dan Lundberg