23 May 2024

Australian mother accused of bringing heroin and cocaine into Taiwan as part of 'drug transport syndicate'

11:06 am on 23 May 2024

By East Asia correspondent Kathleen Calderwood, Xin-yun Wu and Fletcher Yeung in Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan, Taipei, 2024/01/08. People carry their luggage as they walk in a hall at Taoyuan International Airport. Photograph by Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas.
Taiwan, Taipei, 2024/01/08. Des gens portent leurs bagages en marchant dans un hall de l aroport international de Taoyuan. Photographie de Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas. (Photo by Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP)

Taoyuan International Airport Photo: Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas via AFP

An Australian woman currently in a Taiwanese prison charged with smuggling heroin and cocaine, initially "vehemently denied" knowing about drugs in her luggage before saying her ex-husband was behind the deal, according to court documents.

Debbie Voulgaris, 57, was arrested at Taoyuan International Airport just outside of Taipei late last year.

Taiwanese police allege she was carrying 7kg of heroin and cocaine in black plastic bags in a suitcase.

They also claim the drugs had been given to her in Malaysia around 10 December 2023, before she flew to Taiwan.

"Based on her description ... it appeared that number one, Ms Debbie Voulgaris was not aware of the nature of her travelling," Voulgaris's lawyer, Leon Huang, told the ABC.

"And number two, she had no idea of what's placed inside and under her luggage, because there is a hidden compartment and she wasn't aware of that."

He went on to say that it's "essential" for Voulgaris's ex-husband John to take the stand in her case in Taiwan, as he is the only person who can confirm her account.

It's unclear if John is currently in Australia, but Huang said the legal team was seeking to subpoena him.

The indictment by the Taoyuan District Prosecutors office alleges Voulgaris was part of a "drug transport syndicate".

"Although the defendant confessed to the crime during the court's preparatory proceedings, it is noted that she had previously vehemently denied the crime during the investigation and detention interrogation by this court, and her statements have been inconsistent," court documents state.

"Notably, the defendant claimed that the co-conspirator, John, who instructed her to bring category one narcotics to Taiwan, is her ex-husband, indicating a close relationship.

"The defendant and her lawyer requested that John be summoned to testify during the preparatory proceedings, implying that there remains a risk of collusion with John before his testimony."

Voulgaris barred from speaking to family

Police say Voulgaris agreed to transport seven kilograms of category one drugs, including heroin and cocaine, for a payment of $US1800, (NZ$2950) as well as her accommodation and transport costs.

In Taiwan, category one drugs refers to "heroin, morphine, opium, cocaine, and their derivative products".

The drugs were worth about $US1.25 million (NZ$1.9m), according to Chen Po-chuan from the Second Investigation Team of the bureau's Criminal Investigation Brigade.

He went on to allege that Voulgaris had initially claimed she was in Taiwan on holiday, adding that police had been sent to her hotel to see if anyone would come for the drugs, but no one showed up.

Voulgaris's phone was seized by authorities in Taiwan at the time of her arrest, to prevent her from contacting anyone expecting the delivery, court documents state.

"She's a very good-natured person, and she believed people easily," Huang said.

"The deal that Miss Voulgaris got was actually pretty bad - red-eye flights and then she was sent to Malaysia to stay in really crappy hotel for a day or two, and then she flew over to Taipei.

"And the so-called compensation that she was offered was minimal ... so I think I believe her statements ... she's been used as a mule or something like that in the international drug transportation network, and we see a lot of examples like this."

Currently, her case is due back in court in August.

The charges attract a minimum five-year jail term and even the prospect of life in prison or the death penalty.

However, the maximum penalty is considered a remote prospect after Taiwan's Constitutional Court ruled in August that imposing a life sentence or execution for drugs offences is partly unconstitutional.

"If the court finds someone worthy of sympathy, like Debbie's case, typically, they would not want to offer the option of death sentence," Huang said.

He added that Voulgaris had confessed early - while maintaining that she didn't know there were drugs in the suitcase - in the hope that would be considered in her favour when she is sentenced.

Voulgaris has been prohibited from contacting relatives, including her daughter. An application for her release as she awaits her trial date was denied in March.

But Taoyuan District Prosecutor's Office issued a statement saying representatives from the Australian Office in Taipei - Australia's de-facto embassy in Taiwan - were allowed to visit her in prison.

Huang said the legal team is currently visiting her weekly, and she's receiving necessary medical attention while in detention.

"It is noted that the defendant's daughter is aware of John's contact information, therefore it cannot be ruled out that the defendant could use her daughter to contact John, making this request [for contact] ungrantable," Judges Cai Yirong and Hou Jingyun stated when denying her application for release.

"While the applicant mentioned that the defendant has been unable to contact her family for three months, does not speak Chinese, and cannot adapt to the food in our country ... they are not factors to be considered when determining the necessity of detention.

"There is substantial reason to believe the defendant is a flight risk and may collude with co-conspirators or destroy evidence."

'An innocent, pure-hearted mother'

A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said consular assistance was being provided to a detained Australian woman in Taiwan, but wouldn't give further details due to "privacy obligations".

"At the beginning of the investigation, we immediately notified the Australian Office in Taiwan, informing them that their national had been arrested and detained without visitation rights due to suspected crimes," the Taoyuan District Prosecutors Office said in a statement to the ABC on Monday.

"The Australian Office personnel were also permitted to visit the Australian woman with the prosecutor's consent.

"During the investigation, the Australian woman had appointed a lawyer for her defence, ensuring that her litigation rights were not affected."

A petition in support of Voulgaris garnered nearly 3000 signatures.

"Anyone who knows her or has met her, understands the pure, kind heart she has," the author of the petition states.

"She is a mother to five children and she could be facing a death penalty or life in prison.

"Please sign the petition to help towards the freedom of an innocent, pure-hearted mother."