Originally published in The Independent, 7 June 2013
Shuffling out into the hot and stuffy courtyard of his prison in central Egypt, the first thing Charles Ferndale does, after proffering an outstretched palm, is to apologise.
“I’m sorry about these clothes,” he says in his clipped, cut-glass British accent. Motioning down at his red jumpsuit, the 74-year-old explains that the overalls were introduced into the Egyptian prison system during the days of the British occupation.
They are not standard issue, however – only those prisoners on death row suffer the ignominy of wearing the all-in-one, radish-red outfit. This week a court in the Red Sea town of Hurghada confirmed a death sentence which has been given to Mr Ferndale over drug-smuggling charges.
A judge heard claims that the British pensioner, along with a crew of four other people, had attempted to smuggle three tonnes of cannabis resin into Egypt from Pakistan aboard a sailing boat which had docked in the Red Sea. Yet for a man who has been told he may face the hangman’s noose, Mr Ferndale cuts a composed and charming, albeit sometimes slightly disorientated, figure.
Along with three of his co-defendants – a fifth was sentenced in absentia – he is being held in solitary confinement at the main prison in Qena, a town on the Nile about an hour’s drive north of Luxor. With a short, white beard and rectangular bifocal glasses, he chats amiably about his predicament.
Much of his day-to-day life is spent reading. The Flashman sagas by George Macdonald Fraser are a particular favourite. He is also looking forward to reading a history of Ibn Battuta, the medieval Moroccan traveller.
In his small cell, which has no electricity and no fan, he keeps about 20 well-thumbed books. Over the year and nine months of his confinement in Qena, he has read many of them five or six times, he says.
He grew up in South Africa and his murky backstory appears as unlikely as any of the escapades related by Harry Flashman, the roguish Victorian protagonist of the books he loves.
After moving to Britain as a young man, he travelled to Pakistan in the 1970s to work for many years as a conservationist. He had a network of contacts, he claims, which spanned governments, newspapers and royalty. Yet his peripatetic lifestyle also made him enemies.
Working as a writer, he has previously written an article attacking the practise of falcon hunting, lambasting Prince Andrew for accepting an arctic gyrfalcon from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Google his name, and he is described online as a retired businessman working as a freelance journalist with a “special interest in nature conservation”. But by his own admission, it seems that nothing about his life is as straightforward as this would suggest.
Conceding that much of his existence was “mysterious” to many people, he said it was impossible to discuss it without endangering others. He refused to discuss his family, with whom he has had little contact for years, but asked that they be assured he was fine.
With guards circling around him, he says he would be keen to talk in more depth but that every word he says is being monitored. “I’m under their control,” he says, his slight, 5ft 10in frame perched on a bench in the bright prison courtyard. “They can do whatever they like to me. It’s not accepted in this part of the world when people in my position voice criticism of the establishment. You get punished for it.”
Mr Ferndale claims he was framed in a sting operation which was initiated by an Egyptian man whom he had counted as a friend for several years. He speaks about the moment when, by his own account, he realised he had been betrayed by the man, an Egyptian in his fifties called Gamal who claimed to be a jeweller.
Mr Ferndale said that Gamal offered to pay his fuel costs between Yemen and Jordan if he agreed to ship a cargo of incense up the Red Sea. After agreeing to drop off the incense at the island of Zarbagad, about 100 miles north of the Egyptian-Sudanese border, he claims he was met by Gamal on a fishing boat near the shore.
“I said to him: ‘Gamal, are you happy now I’ve delivered your cargo?’ He said that it was the happiest day of his life. Then all these soldiers and police appeared from below deck and opened fire on our boat.”
Mr Ferndale and his lawyers claim Gamal’s deceased father was a notorious drug smuggler. They suggest the police may have asked Gamal to frame a foreigner so they could boost their profile. However, he concedes he has no evidence to back up his theory.
He doubts he will be executed, given how rarely such sentences in these cases are carried out. “I will be appealing,” he said. “This is an extremely abnormal sentence and I’m almost certain it will be reversed.”