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Humour kept me going during Hong Kong jail ordeal, says ex-GAA star Brendan Toner

By Claire McNeilly

Published 16/03/2016

Brendan Toner was cleared of drug charges in Asia
Brendan Toner was cleared of drug charges in Asia

A man from Northern Ireland who spent 18 months in a Hong Kong jail after the drug crystal meth was planted in his suitcase has told of his horrific ordeal.

Brendan Toner (62), from Castlewellan, was caught with 2kg of the highly addictive class A drug while he was en route to Australia in April 2014.

For 549 days the former Down GAA star - who has always been anti-drugs - awaited trial in a stinking cell with the prospect of a 26-year sentence hanging over him.

In an unprecedented ruling last November, however, a Chinese court ruled that he and five others had been innocent victims of a sophisticated smuggling scam.

In his first in-depth interview since his release, Mr Toner, who won Ulster and National League titles with Down in the 1980s, told the Belfast Telegraph about the nightmare of spending a year-and-a-half incarcerated for something he didn't do.

"I decided early on there was no way this was going to beat me," he said.

"You just get yourself into a state of survival.

"I was in jail for six months before I even saw a solicitor; in mainland China or Indonesia I'd probably be on death row by now.

"But there I was, facing 26 years and there was nothing I could do."

The nightmare began in April 2014 after Mr Toner, a single man, stopped off in the former British colony for 10 days en route to a holiday in Australia.

During a baggage search at Hong Kong International Airport the drugs were found in his suitcase.

"It was probably a mixture of shock and 'oh s***' when I was arrested," he said.

"If you hit me over the head with crystal meth I still wouldn't know what it was.

"I'm totally anti-drugs; never touched them in my life.

"I think that's what kept the family together; they knew I wasn't into drugs. I don't even smoke."

Despite his protests Mr Toner, a construction manager now based in Darlington, Co Durham, was charged with trafficking and banged up in the maximum security facility.

But last November Judge Kevin Zervos found that Mr Toner and five other foreigners - two men and three women - had been unaware they were carrying the narcotic and acquitted them.

The 1983 National League winner with the Mourne County revealed how writing long letters to his family back home comforted him - and how his sense of humour kept him from abject despair.

"If I hadn't a sense of humour I wouldn't have survived," said Mr Toner, the second eldest of nine children.

"I was walking up and down a room for six months not knowing what was going to happen.

"The prosecution team were supposed to produce evidence against me but they came up with nothing. When the 'evidence' was finally produced, it was complete and absolute rubbish."

The construction manager added: "I knew in my heart I'd done nothing wrong. Proving it was, however, always going to be a problem."

Mr Toner normally shared his cell with another inmate, but sometimes a third man had to be accommodated.

"You couldn't move," he said.

"You had a toilet but nothing was private. I just had to adjust."

He added: "The food was the biggest problem. It was terrible, but if you don't eat you die.

"In there I saw big, tough men crying because they weren't with their family.

"I celled with a Ukrainian who got locked up for hitting a policeman and he cried his eyes out every night to me. I told him I couldn't do that; I wouldn't let them see they were hurting me."

One of the lowest points of his incarceration was when he was sent to a local hospital after an insect bite on his back ballooned "to the size of an egg".

"They put me into the public ward and handcuffed me to the bed," he said.

"For the operation they handcuffed me to the operating theatre and they cable-tied my ankles to the bottom of it.

"I asked them where they thought I was going to go; get up and run down the streets of Hong Kong in a surgical gown? I had to laugh, and that's the only way I survived out there."

During his time inside Mr Toner looked forward to letters from his five brothers, three sisters, nieces Joanne and Eleanor and nephew Martin.

"They asked me why my letters were so full of humour and I told them that if I lost my humour I'd lose my life," he said

"I had a cycle going with the letters. It took two weeks to get one back so I wrote one every day and it ended up that I was getting one back every day for the whole 18 months."

The tide of justice began to turn for the Northern Ireland native on July 14 last year.

"A guy from Legal Aid told me a lot of things had come to light about my case and that there was something not right about the whole thing," he recalled.

"I was only allowed a phone call every two months, so I couldn't even tell my family things were looking up."

Now that the nightmare of his incarceration is over, Mr Toner said he was getting back into construction work.

"I'm going to get on with my life," he added.

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