June 28 - July 03, 2005 - Helene, a Lengthy Devotion
THIS is the story of Helene Le Touzey, a woman who left her homeland and her future to
live in Bali for the sake of her son, Michael Loic Blanc. Accused of smuggling 3.8 kilograms of hashish, Michael was sentenced to life imprisonment, serving his time in a Kerobokan jail, in Bali, since November 2000.
Helene left a secure life in France to follow Michael in a country that she had never ever seen or heard of. Her story has attracted the attention and sympathy of part of the French people, and even some world celebrities. Tempo reports on Helene Le Touzey’s daily life in Bali as well as in her hometown of Bonneville, France.
HER hands reflect those of an older person. The greenish lines of her veins protrude from freckled skin. The hands belong to Helene Le Touzey, 54, whose movements look as if she is racing against time: writing, typing, organizing documents, making notes, preparing meals, driving, making phone calls…
She does everything herself, and everything is centered on one person: Michael Loic Blanc, her 32-year-old son born in Bonneville, a town in the province of Haute-Savoie in eastern France. Michael, the youngest of three children of Helene Le Touzey and Jean-Claude Blanc, 58, has been imprisoned for the last five years in Kerobokan Prison, about 8 kilometers from Denpasar, Bali.
Michael has been sentenced to life in prison, accused of smuggling 3.8 kilograms of hashish through Ngurah Rai Airport, Denpasar. It has been five years since Helene chose to be close to her son, living about 3 kilometers away. She lives in Goa village, in Legian. Michal occupies a cell at the Bougainville Annex of Kerobokan Prison.
Michael was arrested by immigration authorities at Ngurah Rai Airport on December 26, 1999. At the time, he had just arrived from India, having transited in Bangkok. He had been living in Bali for more than a year. Together with a friend, he rented a house in Canggu Permai Housing Estate at Canggu, in the Kuta area.
The young man has been an adventurer since his youth. “Je suis un voyageur (I am a traveller),” he explained to Tempo. At the age of 19, he travelled to Senegal. And from there he went on to India, the Caribbean, Greece, Malaysia and Thailand. He was trained as a chef. He is also skilled in interior decoration and enjoys painting. Throughout his travels in various countries, his skills and services were always in great demand.
His love for travel ultimately led to his misfortune at Ngurah Rai. Among his luggage—as written in the Denpasar court document on his verdict dated November 16, 2000—a green-black bag, branded Sea Hornet, was found containing two diving tanks. The bag caught the suspicion of officials as it went through the X-ray machine.
Officials checked the bag and detained Michael. The two tanks were drilled open. A total of 189 rolls and 178 tablets of hashish, weighing 3.8 kilograms, were found in the tanks. Tempo was able to obtain Michael’s dossier from the Directorate General of Customs, which included the transcript of the investigators’ interview with Michael on December 26, 1999.
According to the transcript, Michael gave the consent to have the bag checked by police dogs, because “I was certain that the bag was clean since I brought it from India,” he explained to the Tempo reporter. The document also noted Michael’s statement, that he was convinced the prohibited items belonged to an acquaintance named Philip, a Frenchman of Israeli descent who lived in Paris.
The two became acquainted at a café in Seminyak, Bali. Philip entrusted the bag to Michael, which he took along to India before he brought it back to Indonesia. Philip disappeared, and Michael was arrested. The episode on that particular December 26 flung Michael into a world that he had never known during the entire 26 years of his life: police cells, detention, investigations and prison.
Michael’s lawyer, Dwi Surya Adibudi SH, questioned the investigation procedure at the airport, which in his opinion diverged from the rules. “Michael was not inspected in the same room as the piece of evidence in question, and he was not accompanied by a French-speaking interpreter,” Adibudi explained to Tempo.
The Denpasar court sentenced Michael to life imprisonment on November 16, 2000. Helene was in the courtroom at the time. She felt like a sledgehammer hit her body. “I was in a country where I was not familiar with its people, with its legal system,” she told Tempo, her eyes glistening with tears. “I could only hug him tightly…for a moment I wished I could return him to my womb.”
Adibudi and his team appealed to the Denpasar Apellate Court, but the verdict was upheld. Appeal to the Supreme Court was also fruitless. The decision of the Supreme Court dated June 14, 2001 affirmed the two previous verdicts. Michael returned to Kerobokan Prison. He was then 27 years old.
As she watched her son enter the prison, Helene felt as if she was gliding on ice without shoes. “My whole body was shivering through the pores of my skin, even though it was a sunny afternoon. An ‘official’ approached and whispered: “Madam, just have Rp900 million ready. I know ‘Judge so-and-so’ who can reduce the sentence when he appeals.” Helene just waved her hand and asked him to leave. Her thoughts went back to Bonneville, 10 months before that.
It was December 28, 1999, about 3am. Her home phone kept on ringing. The mother of three jumped out of bed with enthusiasm. “Oh, the children never think of the time difference when they call,” she explained. Her daughter, Samantha, who is married, lives in the Caribbean. Michael, to her knowledge at the time, was in India. The oldest, Sebastien, lives in Bonneville.
The voice at the end of the phone suddenly chilled Helene. The French Honorary Consul in Bali at the time, Michel Roure, informed her that Michael was detained by the Denpasar Police for possession of hashish. Roure, who at the time was visiting Michael at the police detention center, passed his phone to her son for a few minutes. “Mama, they are going to prosecute me with a death sentence,” Helene quoted Michael.
Helene immediately contacted Michael’s father, Jean-Claude Blanc—the two have been separated for several years. She also got in touch with her sister, Francoise, and her friend, Jean-Guy Chiesura to inform them of the terrible news. To Tempo, Jean-Claude admitted that initially it was difficult for him to accept the fact that a member of his family could be involved in a case like this.
Helene herself made a quick decision. She took all her savings and reserved a plane ticket to Bali. It was still summer the day she left her town in August 2000. She informed her boss, Pierre Sylvand, that she would be away for several weeks. Pierre, who at the time was already aware of Michael’s situation, gave her some pocket money, as did many friends and sympathizers. They gave her many presents to bring for Michael. “I was somewhat flustered, as I didn’t know how to bring them,” she admitted.
The several weeks she promised Pierre ultimately became several years. She moved three times, from one rented house to another, always located close to the prison. Each morning Helene begins her day by noting down Michael’s needs as well as those of other prisoners whom she is currently helping.
Initially, Helene visited Michael in prison seven days a week. “Sometimes I felt like screaming, telling Maman not to come. I dragged her to jail with me,” Michael said when Tempo met him in prison.
Helene allowed Tempo to accompany her during her visits to the prison for over a week. She is very popular at the prison. All the guards are well-acquainted with her, the soft-drink seller and the mattress renter both greeted her. The prisoners, both foreign and local, all come out to meet their visitors, but they never forget to come by Helene. “Hello Maman, how are you? Comment ca va?” They hug her and stroke her cheeks.
Some of them passed small notes to her, “requests” for her assistance. Some ordered vitamins; some asked her help in writing letters to their girlfriends or families abroad; others asked her to help in picking up money at the bank or buying art materials for painting or entrusting their artwork for her to bring to galleries in Denpasar.
Niko Ferdon, for example, is an Australian of Iranian descent. He is an artist who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for possession of drugs. Helene looked for sponsors outside the prison to enable Niko, 45, to continue painting. He has completed nine paintings, and Helene brought them to a Denpasar gallery to be sold.
“Maman also helped me to contact Amnesty International in Australia,” Niko informed Tempo. There is also Robert Fraser, 45, a sailor from Scotland who is skilled in building miniature sailboats. His products are quite refined and full of ornaments. Several of Robert’s ships decorate Helene’s room.
The French woman is nicknamed “Mother of the Prisoners” in Kerobokan. “One of the routine things that I do to help the prisoners is writing e-mails to their families,” Helene said, laughing. “The saddest thing is accompanying them as they await their death sentences,” she added.
One such case is Emmanuel O Ihejrika, 32. The prisoner from Sierra Leone was sentenced to death for possession of drugs. “Maman gave me Rp100,000 every week so that I can buy extra food,” said this young man.
Prison officials are used to the sight of Helene being surrounded by a crowd of prisoners. Wayan Mudastre, 44, a security officer at the prison said that during the 20 years he has been working at the prison he has never seen a woman so loyal in serving her prisoner son. Mudastre admitted that Helene was “very popular” in Kerobokan.
In illustrating his concern for Helene, Mudastre referred to a female prisoner from Timor who gave birth inside the prison. Helene offered to care for the infant until the woman was released. So everywhere she went, Helene had a baby basket in one hand, a bag full of food for the prisoners in the other hand, and a pack on her back. Two months later, the family of the infant’s mother came to pick up the baby. “We were so relieved to see Helene not so burdened anymore,” said Mudastre.
In her bedroom in Goa village, Helene has the names of 52 female and male prisoners, as well as detainees from England, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Nigeria. She provides special assistance to each one of them. Hence, she has a matrix of information related to each person’s background, their cases, family members who must be contacted, and emergency and routine assistance required by each prisoner.
Each day before departing to the prison, she takes out four or five envelopes, and puts in cash (between Rp20,000 and Rp100,00) each envelope, depending on who she thinks would need them most during that particular week. In each envelope she slips small notes. Helene has memorized the names of families, parents and girlfriends of each foreign prisoner. And on each note, she writes the names of the recipient’s parents or girlfriends as the “sender of the letter and money…”
Money is definitely vital in enabling Helene to carry out her role as Michael’s mother and “Mother of the Prisoners.” When her personal resources were depleted after two years, donations arrived from everywhere. A letter from the Secretary-General of World Scouts, Jacques Moreillon, to then President Megawati dated August 13, 2001, cites: “In France, this case has become quite famous.” In the letter Moreillon asked Megawati to consider the possibility of transferring Michael Loic Blanc, “a Boy Scouts member,” to France and serve his sentence in his homeland.
At the present time, the Indonesian and French governments are reviewing a protocol for the transfer of sentenced persons (TSP), In France, as mentioned by Jacques Moreillon, Michael’s case has become “a prominent case.” A program on Michael is presented on Channel 2 of French television station, TF2.
Support has come from all over. Prince Albert of Monaco, the singer Celine Dion, and the French actor Johnny Hallyday, are among the celebrities who have given support to this Frenchman. Helene herself became a “media star” in France. In Switzerland and Belgium, a number of the press have written about Michael’s case. The French weekly, Paris Match, wrote a long report about Helene’s life in Bali.
The Pro-Victims Foundation, an organization established to support “forgotten legal victims” based in Switzerland, has also provided financial assistance and moral support. A group of friends and sympathizers formed the Association of Michael Blanc’s Supporters (see Bonneville Awaits the Youngest Son), which has so far mobilized 80,000 signatures for a petition to free Michael.
By next August, it would be five years since Helene arrived in Bali. How much longer? “Until I bring my son back to our hometown,” she informed Tempo, on the way to the prison. She stopped by a pharmacy and bought a box of vitamins for Emmanuel O Ihejrika, who is right now awaiting the death sentence…
Hermien Y. Kleden (Bali), Nuria Widyasari (Bonneville, France) Akmal Naser Basral (Jakarta)