Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Airline Passenger Injured During Turbulence: Individual Caution is Essential

Sylvia Tena, 47, who suffered a fractured neck in April, while was traveling on a short Continental Airlines flight from Houston to McAllen, TX, appeared on NBC's "Today" show on May 26, from her hospital bed, whereby she said that her flight from Houston was already delayed because of thunderstorms.

In the "Today" telecast, Tena said she got up to use the restoom while aboard the flight, when the airliner was hitting a particularly harsh patch of turbulence. While inside the restroom, Tena said she was suddenly plummeted upward against the ceiling and suffered serious injuries that left her paralyzed her from the chest down. Tena emphasized that there were passengers in the aisle when she went to the restroom.

Tena contends that there was no announcement aboard the flight urging passengers to return to their seats and to buckle up; however, an initial report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that the captain made "four or five announcements" telling passengers to remain seated. The report also said that as the plane was descending at 20,000 feet, it encountered severe turbulence for about 15 seconds that included a roll of about 30 degrees.Two other people suffered minor injuries during the flight.

COMMENT: As someone who has flown on perhaps 500 flights over a 35-year period, I continue to be overwhelmed by the the large percentage of airline passengers who put themselves at risk by not keeping their seatbelts buckled at all times during flights and in getting up from their seats during obvious turbulence, regardless of whether air crews make an announcement to return to their seats and fasten their seatbelts.

Given the turbulence which the aircraft experienced, it is highly doubtful that that the air crew did not make several announcements for passengers to return to their seats as the NTSB has related. No doubt, the airline crew will be interviewed and data reviewed as to whether passengers were ordered back to their seats.

Airline passengers must realize that they are are not immune from responsibility while in flight. Keeping their seatbelts fastened at all times while in their seats and not getting up when they sense turbulence, and taking any seat nearby when turbulence occurs is felt is just common sense.

Considering that the flight from Houston to McAllen is so short, and assuming that Ms. Tena was not abnormally ill, she could have delayed using the restroom until the aircraft landed.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thailand: Attacks On Foreign Tourists Continue to Be A Concern

Edith Jungen, a Swiss woman in her mid-30s was found dead on a beach in Krabi (Phuket) on May 7, reportedly after being robbed and strangled. 

Ms. Jungen's body was found in very shallow water on Noppharat Beach in Tambon Ao Nang in Krabi's Muang District. 

Jungen was found with the strap of her handbag tied around her neck, as if she had been strangled to death. 

Police said the victim checked in to the Andama Sunset Hotel on May 6, and checked out a day later. Her body was found in water not far from the hotel. According to the Thai National Police, Jungen was overheard by other guests as being concerned about her personal security.

COMMENT: As someone who spent several years as the U.S. Embassy's Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Bangkok, and later as a trainer at the US Justice Department's International Law Enforcement Academy in the Thai capital, violent crime against tourists and expatriates has been rising steadily in recent years.

Despite the fact that tourism is one of Thailand's top industries, the "Land of Smiles" has taken its toll as a series of widely publicized armed robberies and murders of tourists, particularly women, continue to rise. 

In March, a British tourist was murdered on his sailboat, and in January, police arrested a Thai man for the murder of a German woman who was killed during a party on a beach in southern Thailand. 

In 2007, two young Russian women were murdered on the beach in Pattaya. 

In January 2006, two Thai fisherman were convicted of raping and killing 21-year-old British tourist Katherine Horton on Koh Samui. The following day, a Swedish woman who was visiting Thailand with her husband and children, was also raped on Koh Samui. 

Unfortunately, in addition to the homicides described above, there have also been a large number of recent armed robberies and rapes of foreigners.

Although robbery and rape is understandably often a motivation in attacks on foreigners, what is puzzling is the large number of unprovoked attacks in which neither robbery or rape occurred, suggesting that some attacks could be attributable to a serial killer. 

In the case of Edith Jungen, robbery was the primary motive in her attack, but in the case of two young Russian women who were murdered as they relaxed in beach chairs in Pattaya in 2007, their assailants are still at large. They were neither robbed or raped.

One trend that is increasingly troubling is the rise in homicides stemming from robberies, suggesting that criminals are murdering their victims, so as to reduce the risk of being apprehended and convicted.

Almost invariably, foreign crime victims have been attacked when they are alone or in areas where there have been few people (i.e., beach areas, hiking trails, etc.). It is strongly suggested that foreign travelers to Thailand make themselves keenly aware of where specific victims have been attacked and avoid areas where a person alone is vulnerable. 

Taking an organized tour is an excellent way of reducing security risks, rather than venturing out alone. Hotel staff should be consulted on high-risk areas that should be avoided and all travelers should check on travel advisories and warning disseminated by their respective embassies. 

It is also not a bad idea to carry a whistle, which can used to give alarm, if you find yourself in trouble. Women should also be aware that the threat of HIV/AIDS in Thailand, particularly among men, is at crisis levels.

Although Thailand is a truly wonderful country with a wonderful people, one should remember that a high incidence of intoxication and drug use, in concert with a struggling economy, does put foreigners, often perceived as "wealthy," at risk.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Complicity in Crime Highlights that Foreign Travelers Need to Make Better Choices

The imprisonment of British national Samantha Orobator in Vientiane, Laos, some nine months on drug charges highlights the fact that youthful foreigners continue to make very bad life choices that irreversibly change their lives forever. Of course, the top story now being covered is Orobator's imprisonment without notification of the British Foreign Office.

When Orobator was arrested, as she was preparing to board a flight from the Laotian cpaital for London, she was found to be carrying 680 grams of heroin, which made her eligible to face the death penalty, which is the prescribed penalty for possessing more than 500 grams. What further complicates her case, however, is the fact that five months after being imprisoned, she became pregnant, reportedly as a result of a rape behind bars. Fortunately for her, Laotian all prohibits a death sentence for a pregnant offender. Her bigger problem now, if that is possible, is obtaining competent and objective counsel. Although the legal assistance group, Reprieve, is endeavoring to help Orobator.

Although Orobator's case is now a top story everywhere, one that is not involves another young British national, Laura Hill, who died under mysterious circumstances last year in Buenos Aires (Argentina). For 18 months, Argentine authorities have claimed that Hill, 25, died from a self-inflicted cocaine overdose. That being said, an investigation initiated by Hill's parents, and in concert with British law enforcement, indicates that the dental nurse may have died after being attacked by a criminal gang who was forcing her to become a drug mule. By the time Hill was having second thoughts to serve as a mule, it is possible that the gang concluded that Hill knew too much.

Hill reportedly died six weeks after arriving in Buenos Aires in October 2007. At the time, a local medical examiner stated that drug abuse and a lifestyle of excess was the cause of Hill's death, although Hill was never known to use drugs of any kind. Admittedly, Hill did leave the UK suddenly for Argentina, and never told her parents about her trip until she was already in Buenos Aires. Investigation has disclosed that Hill was approached by drug traffickers to transport drugs to London. Initially, she agreed to co-operate but later changed her mind, a decision that may have cost her her life. Phone conversations, secretly taped by the undercover detectives who had been monitoring the gang, confirm Laura objected to their plan for her to smuggle cocaine into Britain hidden in a laptop. Subsequently, Hill was arrested by police who interviewed her and then released her without being charged, but they did arrest and charge several members of the drug gang, which may have led to Hill's death.

A bizarre component of this case surrounds the fact that when Hill's body was sent back to the U.K. for her parents, it was determined that an autopsy could not be conducted because several of Hill's major organs were not present in the body. Yet, the victim's heart, brain and other organs were subsequently found in a morgue in Buenos Aires.

Although Hill's body was found in the building in which she lived, the British Consulate in the Argentine capital told Hill's parents that she had died of "natural causes" brought on by drug abuse. An Argentinian autopsy report later revealed she had swallowed a huge and lethal dose of cocaine, but British authorities the amount of drugs was too large for a person to single-handedly administer to themselves. Notably, there was no trace of the drug on Laura's hands or nails, and a nasal swab showed "non-quantifiable" traces. Argentine medical reports also reveal Hill had drunk no alcohol before her death and had not touched any drugs before the fatal "overdose." This gives pause for the local police conclusion that Hill was a heavy drinker and drug user.

British forensic photographer, Paul Canning, who worked for Scotland Yard for 14 years, has examined the photographs of death scene and others of her body in the morgue. As a result, Canning has concluded that the scene and the body reflect a violent assault, to include rape, although local reports conclude that Hill died from a suicide.

COMMENT: Both the Orobator and Hill cases demonstrate that naive foreign travelers, often those that are not well-traveled or knowledgeable as to the risks they face abroad, make poor choices that can have irreversible results.

U.S. and British nationals, in particular, invariably get into trouble with the law abroad far more so than do other foreign travelers, and many do make the decision to commit a crime, often because they think they can get away with it. Most travelers not only underestimate the police in foreign countries, and many fail to realize just how corrupt and prejudicial to foreigners that some foreign cops can be.

It is strongly urged that all foreign travelers educate themselves and/or obtain pre-departure security advice or training in how to travel safely abroad. It is cases such as those described above that led me to write Staying Safe Abroad: Traveling, Working and Living in a Post-9/11 World, in the hope that the book would help head off a lot of unnecessary tragedy and unpleasantness.

If foreign travelers did just one thing while traveling abroad, it would be to NOT VIOLATE THE LAWS OF FOREIGN COUNTRIES. Failing to do so, can put into motion results that have been described in this posting. Over 3,000 Americans are arrested abroad every year and many assume that U.S. diplomats are waiting anxiously to get them out of the predictaments in which they find themselves. This assumption is rarely correct.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Canadian Rotarian Released, Kidnap Suspects Arrested

As a followup to my earlier posting on the kidnapping of Julie Ann Mulligan, 45, a Canadian Rotarian from Alberta, who was kidnapped in Nigeria some 13 days ago, has been released by her captors and seven suspects arrested by Nigerian police.
The mother of two was reportedly released in a fatigued state on April 29, and seems to be doing reasonably well, apart from stomach ailments and the trauma of being kidnapped by armed gunmen. Kaduna police were able to locate the house where Mulligan had been held through a sting operation, whereby an undercover officer purported to be willing to pay a ransom for the woman. Strangely, Mulligan had been released on a rural road before police closed in on the kidnappers' safehouse.
COMMENT: It is rare for Nigerian kidnappers to simply release a captive while receiving nothing in return. Lisa Monette, a spokesman for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa, would not comment on how Mulligan came to be released, other than that the Canadian government did not pay any ransom. Normally, such a statement leads one to believe that some form of ransom was paid to unknown parties for Mulligan's release, although it is possible that the kidnappers simply got tired of waiting and realized that mounting pressure on the Nigerian government by Canada would increase their potential for being arrested.
Mulligan and four other women left Canada for Nigeria on April 8 on a Rotary Club exchange; she was abducted on April 16, when a car she was traveling in with her Nigerian host was stopped by a group of gunmen.
As mentioned in my earlier blog posting, it is virtually irresponsible for any organization to send foreigners to Nigeria for work or exchange programs without a pre-departure security briefing by someone who is familiar with the security environment. Moreover, the security risks in one of the world's most dangerous countries, particularly for four Canadian women unfamiliar with the country, should have mandated special security arrangements for airport transportation, hotel and vehicular security.