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Australian jockey Anthony Bannister to face death penalty in China

Anthony Bannister
Anthony Bannister
A former Australian jockey will appear in a Chinese court on Thursday to hear if he will receive the death penalty, after being charged with attempting to smuggle a commercial quantity of crystal methamphetamine to Australia.

Anthony Bannister, 43, was stopped from boarding a China Southern flight to Sydney on March 11 last year after customs officers detected the drugs, also known as ice, stuffed in 8 ladies' handbags packed in his luggage. Chinese prosecutors have sought the death penalty.

His brother James conceded it was likely the court would deliver a guilty verdict on Thursday but said lawyers and Australian consular officials were hopeful Mr Bannister - who has maintained his innocence - would avoid execution, and instead be handed a suspended death sentence which is usually commuted to life imprisonment after a period of good behaviour.

"It makes you a bit numb, that's all you can think about ... it's completely out of your hands," James Bannister told Fairfax Media via telephone.

He added they would appeal any guilty verdict given the court had not been provided a trail of emails which corroborated his brother's version of events - that he was an unwitting victim of an elaborate scam.

"I do believe that I have been set up ... in this drug smuggling scheme," Anthony told the court during his trial in October. "They've used me as a mule."

Mr Bannister is one of 11 Australians awaiting trial or verdict in China on serious drug charges that potentially attract the death penalty. The cases centre around southern Guangdong province, increasingly favoured by international trafficking syndicates as a major manufacturing hub for synthetic drugs due to its international transport links and ready access to precursor chemicals.

A number of other Australians in drug trouble in Guangzhou have also claimed they have been scammed by international drug rings, including Sydney man Peter Gardner, who told a court last month that he was tricked into thinking he was carrying performance-enhancing peptides, and not crystal meth.

Mr Bannister, who showed promise as a young jockey in Adelaide, told the court in October that three men he identified as "Justin", "KC" and "John Law" had convinced him he was entitled to a lucrative divorce settlement, having split from his ex-wife, a Filipino woman he met while living in Japan.

But in a process that became increasingly convoluted, he was told that a series of documents needed to be signed in person in Guangzhou, which resulted in him travelling to the city five times in the space of four months, usually only for a few days at a time.

Each time he would be told that another signature - and therefore another trip to Guangzhou - was required, while the promised "settlement" ballooned from an initial $US60,000 ($78,000) to more than $US1 million.

On his fateful last trip to Guangzhou, Mr Bannister was informed by "John Law" that his money had arrived, and to bring forward his flight back to Australia.

Mr Bannister said "KC" helped reschedule his flights, but inserted a detour to Sydney at the last minute. In a taxi in Guangzhou the night before his flight, "KC" asked Mr Bannister to bring a suitcase with him as a favour. He said he never looked in the suitcase, which contained the drug-filled handbags.

"I had no knowledge of the drugs," he said. "I had no knowledge of the suitcase until March 10 ... until the night before I left."

But prosecutors said Mr Bannister's account was "conflicting and illogical", and that he chose to smuggle drugs because he was unemployed. They recommended the death penalty to be carried out promptly.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, June 16, 2015

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