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Australian beer mat mother Annice Smoel walks free in Thailand

Free at last ... Annice Smoel is greeted by her husband Darren.
By Brendan Roberts - May 21, 2009

IT took 18 days, an international outcry and a little leverage from the local Thai Governor - but Aussie mum Annice Smoel is finally coming home.

Mrs Smoel, who was unable to leave Thailand after being accused of stealing a beer mat when a drunken prank went wrong, was given a six-month suspended jail term and a 1000 baht ($38) fine in return for a guilty plea yesterday.

She was last night preparing for an emotional reunion with the four young daughters she hasn't seen for more than a fortnight.

"I don't know exactly how it all happened today," Mrs Smoel said.

"I think it was a combination of my lawyers here, my lawyers in Australia and my Government and the Thai Government.

"The Governor has apologised to me and been very kind. He seems like a lovely man. He has really looked after me."

Phuket Governor Wichai Praisa-nob paid Mrs Smoel's fine as an act of good faith. It is believed he intervened after being contacted by Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and the Foreign Ministry.

Until yesterday, Mrs Smoel feared she would spend at least the next four months in Thailand until a trial and possibly up to five years in prison if convicted.

But in return for her freedom, Mrs Smoel pleaded guilty.

She and her husband Darren were trying to organise the first possible flight home to be reunited with their daughters, Zhian, 12, Daisy, 11, Zoe, 8, and Lilly, 6.

Phuket Provincial Court officials said Ms Smoel was also placed on a two-year good behaviour bond.

Her lawyer Bernard Murphy said he was cautiously satisfied.

"But it's still quite a sensitive situation, we don't want to say anything further until Annice is on a plane," he said.

"The most important thing for us to do is to get her home."

Ms Smoel was arrested on May 2 for allegedly stealing the bar mat from the Aussie Bar in Phuket, where she was celebrating her mother's 60th birthday.

She spent four days in a cramped jail cell with three other women.

Ms Smoel claimed her friends had put the bar mat in her handbag as a practical joke.

Mr Smoel said they couldn't wait to see their daughters again.

"Just seeing our little girls standing there, mate, we can't wait," Mr Smoel said.

"We'll tell them we love them and give them all a hug."

Their family in Melbourne were celebrating last night.

'Guilty' bar-mat mum on the way home after high-level Thai intervention

Suspended sentence: Annice Smoel.
Paul Millar - May 21, 2009

Melbourne mother of four Annice Smoel, who had been facing a jail term in Thailand after being charged with stealing a bar mat, is on her way home after the Governor of Phuket intervened to resolve the matter.

Mrs Smoel said she was lookiing forward to seeing her faur daughters before she and her husband caught a flight due to touch down at Tullamarine about midday.

Speaking to reporters in the office of a Thai immigration official, Ms Smoel was wary of making any comment before her passport was returned to her, but she said she was looking forward to being reunited with her daughters.

"I'll probably cry ... and hug them,'' she said.

Husband Darren added: "Yeah, not the best thing I've ever had to deal with, but talk to our solicitor. He'll tell you how it's been.''

Governor Wichai Praisa-nob, who was under pressure from the Thai foreign and tourism ministers, made a personal appearance at a surprise court hearing yesterday, and even paid Mrs Smoel's fine, according to local media.

Alan Morison, a journalist with the The Phuket Wan news website in the Thai resort town, said it was highly unusual for the Governor to turn up at a court hearing and then pay the fine of the accused.

He said the Governor had received calls from the Foreign Minister and the Tourism Minister about the case.

"It appears it was a clear attempt by the Government to expedite the matter as it was quite damaging to Phuket tourism," Mr Morison said.

The website said Ms Smoel had pleaded guilty to theft and was given a six-month suspended jail term and a 1000 baht ($38) fine in a court ruling yesterday.

"The governor has apologised to me and been very kind. He seems like a lovely man."

The maximum sentence for the theft charge is a year's imprisonment and a 2000 baht fine, but her guilty plea had been taken into consideration.

A Thai facing the same charge would have to wait weeks or months for a similar court hearing, the Phuket Gazette said.

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