Laura Plummer, 33, from Hull, has been jailed for three years after she was caught smuggling 290 Tramadol for her friend Omar Saad in Egypt
Hurghada 1st Police Department headquarters is a low-rise, rather nondescript building near the airport on the edge of the Egyptian Red Sea town.
The limited prisoner accommodation within cannot be compared with, say, Thailand’s infamous ‘Bangkok Hilton’ — where foreign drug traffickers have quickly learned to regret the error of their ways. But who would care to be in the position in which Laura Plummer finds herself today?
Miss Plummer, 33, is a clothes shop assistant from Hull who never had a boyfriend before she met Omar Saad, an Egyptian lifeguard, while on holiday at a real-life Hilton hotel resort.
Mr Saad was already married with children, but he and the young Yorkshire woman ‘fell in love’ and, bizarrely, a long-distance, semi-official love triangle was agreed upon.
That arrangement might have continued but for the fact that the Egyptian suffered from chronic back pain due to a car crash. When he asked devoted Miss Plummer to bring him painkillers from England, she was only too keen to ease his discomfort — but her attempts to help have shattered her life and created international headlines.
On Boxing Day, Miss Plummer was sentenced to three years in prison, thanks to the 290 tablets of the pain-killing synthetic opioid tramadol found in her suitcase by airport security when she arrived for a visit to her lover.
If it is not prescribed by a medical professional, tramadol is prohibited in Egypt and its supply can be punishable by death.
She now subsists on bread and water in a shared cell at the Hurghada police station pending transfer to a dedicated facility somewhere else in Egypt’s hopelessly overcrowded and deeply unpleasant prison system.
Laura Plummer was carrying 270 Tramadol for her friend who was suffering a bad back
Laura Plummer has been described by her large and obviously devoted family as ‘naive’ or ‘daft’ — and there is no evidence to suggest she was anything but.
Her father Neville, 70, says she wouldn’t know a ‘tramadol from a Panadol’. That is unfortunate to say the least because, as we will explain, tramadol has become the focus of a massive police crackdown in Egypt.
The country has become both a major transit route and ready market for the drug since international criminal gangs and Islamist terror groups began to realise its black market value.
Meanwhile, a wider war is raging across Egypt between those Islamist forces allied to Islamic State, and the government of strongman leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Her family said Laura would not know the difference between Panadol and Tramadol
It is the reason foreign tourism has collapsed in the years after the Arab Spring in 2011, which saw an Islamic regime democratically elected then overthrown by al-Sisi in a bloody coup four years ago.
The deteriorating security situation saw the number of tourists visiting Egypt plunge from 15 million to 5.4 million in 2016, a downturn which has grievously damaged the economy.
This has added a political element to the case of Laura Plummer: one imagines the authorities will not want Egypt to have a reputation among British tourists as a country that locks foreigners up at will.
Of course the plunge in tourist numbers led to a similarly sharp fall in local holiday prices, which is what might have attracted Laura Plummer to Sharm el Sheik in 2014.
It was there at the Hilton Sharks Bay resort that she met her Egyptian lover, who was working at the 630-room hotel. He is four years older than Laura and comes from the town of Beni Suef on the river Nile, some 100 miles south of the capital Cairo. It is where his wife and children have been based.
He told the Mail: ‘We started talking as normal people would, but we understood our feelings and the love from the first conversation. From the first meeting it was love. Afterwards, she came to Egypt just for me and I took vacations so we could spend them together.’
In order to do so, they contracted what is called in Egypt an ‘orfi marriage’. This is an oral declaration of marriage backed by signed statements in front of witnesses and a lawyer. While it has no formal legal recognition, it is sufficient to allow a couple to stay together in the same hotel room without being arrested for adultery or fornication.
Ms Plummer has been jailed for three years for smuggling Tramadol into Egypt
Often the couple are an already married Egyptian man and his foreign girlfriend. The orfi documents are colloquially known as ‘f*** papers’ because sex is more often than not their raison d’etre.
Miss Plummer’s family said she visited Egypt for a fortnight several times a year to spend time with her ‘husband’. She had even met his legal wife, though it is unclear what that lady thought of the arrangement.
One of the reasons Miss Plummer met the other significant woman in Mr Saad’s life may be that she started travelling to her lover’s home town after he lost his job at the Hilton three years ago. He now works as a security guard.
The Mail learned that Mr Saad had been sacked by the resort after a quantity of the drug cannabis was found in his room at the resort’s staff quarters. Former colleagues said that in return for Mr Saad’s resignation, the resort did not report the matter to the police.
Cannabis use is illegal in Egypt and punishable by prison. But the country has long been a producer of the drug, and its use is common, particularly among young resort staff in their time off, one worker told the Mail. It did not mean Omar was some kind of drug lord or addict.
But cannabis is not Egypt’s most abused drug. That distinction goes to tramadol.
The drug was first put on the market in the Seventies as a relief for moderate to severe pain, and since then has become increasingly popular around the world. In the UK, for example, where it is now a category C controlled drug, tramadol prescriptions rose from 5.9 million in 2006 to 11.1 million in 2012.
And with this rise in popularity came recreational abuse and addiction. According to the UK government’s drug education service, ‘although tramadol is not as strong as heroin, it shares many of the same effects and both are addictive’.
In 2015 alone, 33 cases of fatal tramadol overdose were reported in Northern Ireland, more than deaths from cocaine and heroin combined. As governments around the world have cracked down, black market tramadol has become an increasing source of money for criminals — with Egypt and her neighbours a significant point in the drug’s flow.
A ship carrying no less than 26 million tramadol tablets was reportedly intercepted in the Mediterranean in the summer of 2016 by Greek authorities. The drugs — produced in India — were destined for Libya.
Drug enforcement investigators in a number of countries have identified links between organised crime and Islamist groups in Libya who move drugs along the coast to Egypt for transportation to Europe.
Today, in Egypt it is said to be the most abused drug — with one addiction hotline there describing it as ‘more popular than bread’.
Laura’s family, pictured have pleaded for clemency claiming she did not intend to do wrong
It was into this mess that Laura Plummer arrived on October 9 last year with her 290 tramadol tablets to ease, she said, Mr Saad’s back pain.
He had begged her for help, it has been reported, but did not specifically request tramadol.
Miss Plummer flew from Manchester and landed at Hurghada, which is a five-hour taxi ride from Mr Saad’s family home in Beni Suef.
She was arrested when her suitcase was searched at customs. Her first words to an official were: ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’
A transcript of what the authorities allege she said in a subsequent interview with the public prosecutor has been reported.
She denied she had brought the tablets into Egypt to sell — in fact she suggested the pills were for ‘the mother of my husband in Beni Suef’.
Tramadol, pictured, is a powerful opiod taken by patients for serious pain, file photgraph
When asked if she’d brought tablets like them into Egypt before, she said: ‘No. I got them from a friend in England.’ She then gave a woman’s name — a colleague in her clothes shop, Donna Irvin, who is 53.
It has been reported that Miss Irvin had been legally prescribed them and did not know that supplying Miss Plummer like this was an offence under UK law.
After her interview at the airport, Miss Plummer was told to sign a 38-page document in Arabic.
Her family have said they believe Mr Saad was at the airport and waited several hours for her to appear after her arrest. (The Mail has been told they asked their Egyptian lawyer to investigate Mr Saad’s background, and found he was of good character without criminal convictions.)
And what of the woman Laura Plummer claimed gave her the drugs? Miss Plummer’s older sister, Jayne Synclair, has said of Donna Irvin’s alleged involvement in supplying the pills: ‘So far Donna has refused to help us. She doesn’t want to get involved because she thinks she’ll be extradited to Egypt and thrown into jail with Laura.
‘It’s ridiculous and we’ve tried to reassure her but she won’t listen, and is now blocking all of our calls.’
Yesterday Miss Irvin declined to comment to the Mail.
Miss Plummer’s mother Roberta Synclair, 63, was in Egypt until a few days ago. She only caught up with her daughter at Hurghada after two days and hundreds of miles of taxi rides across southern Egypt.
Miss Plummer had been moved to a prison at Safaga and then the notorious facility at Qena, before being returned to the police station cell, where she awaits a more permanent home.
Mrs Synclair, who brought food, clothes and money, said: ‘I’m so frightened for her. She was devastated when I saw her, but I’m so proud of her. I kept saying, “You’ve already done three months — if you can do that you can do anything.” She kept saying, “I can’t, I can’t”, but she seems to have pulled herself together a bit more now.’
As for her daughter’s ‘husband’, Roberta Synclair said: ‘I used to speak with her about travelling to be with him, but she just always said, “I love it when I do, and I’m happy and not hurting anyone.” She would say that she knows he has a wife, but that she was happy.’
Other British prisoners have revealed the conditions inside Egyptian jails, pictured
Laura Plummer’s father has no doubt about his daughter’s character: ‘[We are] a family of eight, we are all good, honest people, but out of all of us she is the most honest of the lot. Laura has never been related to drugs, or any crime, and she had no reason to suspect what she was doing was wrong.’
And what of the man whose request for painkillers landed this young British woman in jail?
Mr Saad pleads: ‘My heart is absolutely broken — I’m missing her so much. I did not want her to violate her life, and I had no idea she would bring tramadol — I would have told her: “Don’t bring it to Egypt.” ’
He added: ‘I will wait for her to come out. The only problem I am worried about is whether she will be allowed back into Egypt.
‘I’m wishing that she will be released and be able to come to Egypt again with no restrictions.’
Now, Miss Plummer must wait 60 days after her conviction before making an appeal. That could then take ten months to be considered. Her family hope that she can be moved to a prison in Cairo while she awaits her fate.
Three days after her sentencing, the Egyptian Islamists’ latest atrocity unfolded — the murder of eight Christians and a policeman outside a church in Cairo.
That is the reason barricades surround Hurghada 1st Police Department headquarters: they are not there to ensure Miss Plummer stays inside, but that Islamic State are kept out.
Given the current security situation, and the crisis sparked by a tramadol drug epidemic and the collapse in tourism, hers is a case which Egypt does not want or need, but cannot now ignore.