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02.11.2004 General News

British teenager faces 25 years' hard labour in Ghana

By Evening Standard
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A Surrey (in UK) schoolboy is facing up to 25 years' hard labour in an African prison after being accused of smuggling cocaine.

Bill Burgess, 15, who has special educational needs, had been taken to Ghana on a two-week "business trip" by his Liberian-born stepfather, Victor Gondoh.

But as they prepared to board the flight home, officials found eight kilograms of cocaine in two suitcases bearing the boy's name.

He and his stepfather were arrested and taken for questioning.

Today, his mother, Amanda Brookes, claimed the schoolboy was innocent.

"My son's been set up," she said. "How can they think a 15-year-old boy would go to a country where he knows no one, to smuggle drugs?

"I'm told the drugs were wrapped in Bill's clothes but I know he had nothing to do with it," she said.

Ms Brookes, from Wallington, who has been married to Mr Gondoh for seven years, claims someone could have put the drugs into her son's bag.

"On the day they were going to leave the Ghanaian capital, Accra, I'm told Bill left his suitcase in his room and went to get something to eat.

"Then he was told they were off to the airport."

The schoolboy was arrested on 20 October and has been remanded in a detention centre. He was allowed to phone home shortly after his arrest but now his only contact is through a British embassy official.

Prosecutors claim that during intensive interviews, the stories provided by stepfather and son did not match.

A court will decide next week whether he can be released on bail to stay with his stepfather's mother, who lives in Ghana, until his trial begins.

Ms Brookes said she had sent ?500 to pay for legal fees and food. Since her son's arrest her life had been turned upside down, she said.

"I keep thinking this is a nightmare and I'm going to wake up.

"I'm trying to stay strong but it's hard," she added.

Weeks before the trip, Mr Gondoh had taken Bill, his 17-year-old sister Amanda and their seven-year-old stepbrother on a month-long visit to the country.

They visited relatives there and Mr Gondoh claims he set up a property deal.

It was to secure this deal that he said he needed to fly back with his stepson a few weeks later.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We do not comment on consular matters involving minors."

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