A Malaysian mother and daughter are suing the Australian government after spending four months in jail because their teabags were assumed to be drugs, even after negative test results.
According to Australian news reports, the botched police investigation determined that Connie Chong and her daughter Melanie Lim who are Malaysian nationals were smuggling drugs when in reality it was just ginger tea.
They were importing 25kg of Malaysian tea – which is said to help with period pain – to sell it in Australia.
However, their plan was cut short when their tea packets were seized in January at the airport by Australian Border Force (ABF) officials, who wrongly identified the beverage as amphetamine drug Phenmetrazine.
Heavily-armed police officers then raided Chong and Lim’s Sydney house to arrest the pair and charge them with commercial drug supply, an offence which carries a maximum sentence of life behind bars.
Authorities were allegedly made aware of issues with the tests used to identify the substance in the following weeks.
Despite this, the mother and daughter remained locked up for four months without bail and the charges weren’t withdrawn until 10 August when New South Wales Police carried out its own forensic analysis.
A forensic operator from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) even wrote to the leading officer on the case, Detective Senior Constable Tara Conaghan, to express concern over the test.
“Mate in a nutshell we cannot take from this ABF result that the sample contains or does not contain Phenmetrazine,” they wrote, adding that Conaghan would need to have the sample tested independently to be certain it contained the drug.
A couple of months later, an AFP officer emailed the detective to let her know that lab results from two earlier incidents involving similar products had found that there were “no prohibited substances detected”.
The court heard that Conaghan failed to pass this information on to the women’s defence team, and they remained in jail as a result.
When asked by Chong’s barrister Steve Boland why she failed to inform the women, she said: “Because the drugs were still waiting to be completely tested.”
Boland then asked, “So, what, they’ve got to sit it out in jail?” which was met with silence from Conaghan’s end.
“I’ll assume that question is not going to be answered,” added Boland.
Chong and Lim were not bailed until May, and they are now suing for costs, which the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions has refused to pay.
Boland said, “The Crown is opposing the idea that these falsely accused women should get a dollar.”
The case was adjourned to March.