Welcome to Hell: Colin Martin’s enduring story of serving time in a Thai Prison
The journalist Tony Barrett published this story on Colin Martin in the Liverpool Echo in 2006 when his book Welcome to Hell was released in the UK. Welcome to Hell went on to become a bestseller in Ireland, Britain and Asia. It’s been translated into Polish, French and German.
COLIN Martin rolls up his trouser legs and points to the scars which provide a permanent reminder of his stay at the notorious Bangkok Hilton. The crude disfigurements were literally hammered into his legs as he went through the Thai prison ritual of being forced to wear shackles after he was jailed for a murder he maintains he did not commit.
“As soon as I set foot in jail they put me in large chains. Not the ones you see in television programmes, these weighed four kilos and were smashed on to my ankles by prison officers using hammers,” he recalls. “Some lads actually had their legs broken during this process and many more suffered from severe infections as the metal rusted and got into their bloodstream.
“It was incredibly brutal and it was my first real insight into what lay ahead of me in jail.”
Exactly how Colin found himself inside one of the world’s most brutal prison regimes is shrouded in confusion and controversy. The fact is that in 1997 he was found guilty of the murder of a former business partner’s bodyguard after a deal went wrong. But the shambolic legal process which resulted in Colin’s conviction was enough to provoke outcry from Fair Trials Abroad and his fight for freedom made him something of a cause celebre in Thailand.
To this day, Colin, who was born and brought up in Birkenhead before his family moved to Ireland when he was a teenager, remains steadfast in his insistence that he was totally innocent and was the victim of a chronic miscarriage of justice. “I was forced to sign a confession,” he insists. “Anyone who found themselves in my position would’ve signed anything they wanted. I can guarantee that.
“I was arrested and taken to a police station where I was continuously beaten. They gave me electric shocks with a cattle prod to my legs, my chest and my testicles. “They said I had been arrested for murder but I knew I hadn’t done anything like that so I couldn’t confess and they just carried on torturing me.
“But then they put a plastic bag on my head. I couldn’t breathe and I passed out. They woke me up by throwing water on me, then they put the bag back on my head and one of them cocked a gun and held it to my forehead. “I really thought they were going to kill me so I screamed I would sign anything they wanted and the confession was put before me and I signed it.”
Once in court, Colin’s case took a total of three years to be heard and was adjourned on 34 separate occasions.
When he was found guilty of the charge Colin was told by the judge (the third different one who heard his case) that although there were no witnesses and no real witnesses he thought Colin was guilty and sentenced him to 16 years in jail, a tariff which was later reduced to 10 years on appeal.
The fact that there was no jury alerted Fair Trials Abroad who were also deeply concerned that there had only been one judge sitting, instead of the three prescribed under Thai law. Their concern made little difference however as Colin was taken to Bangkwang prison, known ironically as the Bangkok Hilton due to its notoriously appalling conditions. As one of very few Westerners inside the jail, Colin knew it would be a struggle to survive. With his wife and young son on the outside he had never felt more isolated.
“My wife was sending me pictures of our son but I couldn’t even look at them,” he says. “I just hid them away because they would have made me think too much of what I was missing and that could’ve broken me.
“The only time I really thought about them was when my son’s seventh birthday was approaching. Like me, he is a massive Liverpool fan so I wrote to the club and explained to them that I couldn’t get him a present because of my situation and they sent some stuff out to him. I’ll never forget that.”
While inside, Colin contracted TB and his weight plummeted from almost 13 stone to seven-and-a-half stone in a matter of months. Because of the lack of medical facilities in the prison he was affected by the condition for more than 18 months. At his lowest ebb, Colin decided he had to do something to ease his mental suffering and restore his flagging health. It was at this point that he took up muay Thai kick boxing – a martial art which is practised almost religiously by many of the native Thai prisoners. It was a decision which would dramatically improve Colin’s whole prison experience and provide a turning point for his life.
He says: “The guards really respect anyone who gets involved in this because it is such an important part of their culture.
“And they love gambling on the outcome of bouts as well so they take an active interest in anyone who has a go.
“I had 10 fights and won nine of them. In the one I lost I had the s*** kicked out of me by a massive Nigerian lad called Peter and I was in pain for weeks. But, despite the pain, it was definitely worth it because it gave me my strength back and gave me something positive to focus on while I was inside that hell hole.”
During his incarceration Colin was eligible for an amnesty which was instigated in honour of the King’s birthday. He would have been released from jail on one condition – that he admit his guilt. Adamant he was innocent, Colin refused and was not set free until January 2004 when another amnesty in honour of the Queen’s birthday allowed him to be released with two years of his sentence remaining, despite the fact he still maintained his innocence.
Colin is now living just outside Newry in Northern Ireland and is attempting to rebuild his life. By way of catharsis he has detailed his experiences in a book called Welcome To Hell: One Man’s Fight For Life Inside the Bangkok Hilton. It is currently the number three bestseller in Thailand and has engrossed a captive audience at Colin’s former residence.
“I believe all the lads at the Bangkok Hilton are reading it,” he laughs. “I don’t know if that’s a recommendation or not though because I suppose they have got a lot of time on their hands.”
Welcome To Hell, published by Maverick House, is priced £7.99.