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New Zealander sentenced to death in Malaysia

1987 New Zealander sentenced to death in Malaysia

Lorraine Cohen was sentenced to death by a Malaysian judge for heroin trafficking. On appeal her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The trial of Lorraine Cohen and her son Aaron, who had been arrested at the same time, gained worldwide attention. Both were pardoned and released in 1996.

The pair had been arrested on 9 February 1985 as they tried to board a plane at Penang International Airport. Malaysian authorities searched them and found 140 grams of heroin hidden in Lorraine's underwear and 34 grams of heroin in Aaron's underwear. Malaysian law classified anyone in possession of more than 15 grams of heroin as obtaining drugs for supply and therefore a drug trafficker. Those convicted of such an offence are automatically given the death sentence.

Lorraine Cohen had started using drugs at an early age. She moved to Sydney, where she met and married musician Danny Cohen. When Aaron was born Lorraine was still struggling with her addiction to heroin. When her marriage ended she returned to a life of prostitution and drugs. Aaron also became addicted to heroin.

In 1984 Lorraine received a $10,000 inheritance from her mother. This prompted the ill-fated trip to Penang, where she and Aaron planned to buy cheap heroin to support their habit.

On 1 September 1987, two and a half years after the pair's arrest, Lorraine Cohen was sentenced to death. As Aaron was only 18 at the time of his arrest, he was spared the death penalty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and six lashes with a rotan cane.

The Cohens appealed against their sentences. The appeal judges accepted that as Lorraine was a regular and heavy user of heroin, the drugs in her possession were for her own use. In August 1989 her conviction was commuted to life imprisonment. Aaron's appeal was rejected, and in December 1991 he received his six lashes.

Life for the pair in Penang prison was hard. Lorriane developed breast cancer and was hospitalised, eventually regaining her health. Karpal Singh, their Malaysian lawyer, set about obtaining pardons. There were two unsuccessful applications before a third succeeded. The Cohens were released in 1996 after more than 11 years in prison, and returned to New Zealand.

In 2001 they were both convicted on a number of drugs charges and sentenced to four years in prison.

Image: Lorraine Cohen and son, Aaron (Corpun