Freed Danes vow to prove innocence
Goodbye to all that ... the Australian Ambassador, Jonathan Thwaites (left), and their lawyer, Ted Tzovares (far right), flank the Danes on their departure from Vientiane Airport yesterday. Photo: AFP
By Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Singapore
Australians Kay and Kerry Danes fly home to a joyful reunion with their children today after last night declaring their innocence on gem stealing charges under which they were imprisoned for almost a year in Laos.
"I think we are lucky, very lucky," said Kay Danes after flying out of Vientiane last night. "Obviously things could have got a lot worse, but we've survived.
"We haven't done anything wrong. I have a sentence, but that's according to Lao law. But the world outside should judge us differently. I've got nothing to be ashamed of. My name is clear, my conscience is clear."
Kerry Danes said he and his wife would now be able to prove the allegations against them were false. "We are both people of integrity. We can now have our say and people will be able to decide what the truth is."
The couple's departure from Laos ended a protracted legal and diplomatic battle over claims they were involved in a multi-million-dollar sapphire smuggling and money laundering conspiracy.
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Freed under a pardon signed earlier this week by President Khamtay Siphandone, they are still required to pay more than $1million in fines and "compensation" for crimes which they insist, and the Australian Government believes, they are innocent of.
The couple spent last night in transit in Hong Kong and were heading back to Australia today to be reunited with the three children they have not seen since they were arrested on December 23 last year. Jessica, 15, Sahra, 12, and Nathan 8, have been staying in Brisbane with Kay Danes's parents.
"There will be plenty of hugging and kissing," said Mrs Danes. "It will be such a relief to see them again."
A court in Vientiane sentenced the couple to seven years' jail and ordered them to pay fines and compensation of more than $1million in June after finding them guilty of embezzlement, tax evasion and destruction of records involving the company Gem Mining Laos.
Kerry Danes, a warrant officer on extended leave from the Australian Army, was in charge of GML's security.
"We were just standing by our clients and got roped into what was happening," he said yesterday. "We did nothing illegal. We took a risk in that line of work but it was a much bigger risk than we ever imagined."
Lao authorities have pocketed about $300,000 taken from the couple and the Danes have agreed to repay about another $700,000 in four instalments over the next year.
The Foreign Minister, Alex Downer, welcomed the release, but denied that the Government had underwritten the balance of the money demanded by Laos.