Mother, 57, faces execution by a gunshot to the heart in Taiwan for drug smuggling – but blames her ex-husband after 15lb of cocaine and heroin is found in her suitcase

An Australian mother of five faces the death penalty in Taiwan after she was allegedly caught with a stash of cocaine hidden in her suitcase.

Debbie Voulgaris, 57, was arrested at Taoyuan International Airport in December after the drugs were allegedly found in black plastic bags in her luggage.

Taiwanese police claim she had £15 of the drug, which – they say – she initially ‘vehemently denied’ any knowledge of.

She later claimed her ex-husband John was behind the scheme, police say.

Ms Voulgaris’ lawyer, Leon Huang, said it was “essential” that her ex took the stand as he was the only person who could corroborate her claims.

Under Taiwan’s strict legal system, the death penalty remains legal despite attempts to repeal it. The death penalty can be imposed for a long list of crimes, including murder, treason, terrorism, extreme cases of rape and robbery, and drug trafficking.

Although Taiwan has studied other methods of execution, such as lethal injection, executions are now carried out by shooting with a pistol.

Condemned prisoners are anesthetized and placed face down on a mattress and shot three times through the heart. If the prisoner has chosen to donate his internal organs, he is instead executed with a single bullet to the back of the head.

Even if she does not receive the death penalty, the mother faces a minimum of five years behind bars, but could also face life in prison.

Debbie Voulgaris could face the death penalty in Taiwan

Voulgaris is said to have handed over the Category 1 drugs in Malaysia around December 10 before flying to Taiwan ABC reported.

The Australian mother is said to have paid $1,800 (£1,400) to take the drugs, in addition to her accommodation and transport costs.

According to Chen Po-chuan, captain of Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Brigade, the drugs had a street value of about $1.25 million.

Mr Po-chaun said Voulgaris told authorities she was in Taiwan on holiday.

He said Officers had been sent to her hotel to see if anyone had come to collect the drugs, but no one had arrived.

Voulgaris has been held in a Taiwanese prison since her arrest.

Her lawyer Leon Huang said his client was a “good-natured person” who “easily believed people” and had been used as a drug mule.

“Based on her description … it appeared that Ms. Debbie Voulgaris was, first of all, unaware of the nature of her travels,” Mr. Huang said.

“And number two, she had no idea what was in and under her luggage because there is a hidden compartment and she was not aware of it.”

Mr Huang said that because his client had admitted guilt early on, while still insisting she knew nothing about the drugs, she could avoid the death penalty.

“When the court finds someone deserving of sympathy, like Debbie’s case, they generally don’t want to offer the option of the death penalty,” he said.

Taoyuan County prosecutors alleged that Voulgaris was part of a “drug trafficking syndicate,” according to documents submitted to a Taiwanese court.

“Although the defendant confessed to the crime during the preliminary court proceedings, it is noted that she previously vehemently denied the crime during the investigation and questioning by this court, and her statements are inconsistent,” the documents said.

“Specifically, the defendant alleged that the co-conspirator, John, who directed her to bring Category 1 narcotics to Taiwan, is her ex-husband, indicating a close relationship.

“The defendant and her attorney requested that John be called to testify during the preliminary proceedings, implying that there remains a risk of collusion with John before his testimony.”

In Taiwan, Category 1 drugs include heroin, morphine, opium, cocaine and derivatives.

Debbie Voulgaris, 57, was arrested at Taoyuan International Airport in December after drugs were allegedly found in black plastic bags in her luggage

Debbie Voulgaris, 57, was arrested at Taoyuan International Airport in December after drugs were allegedly found in black plastic bags in her luggage

John’s exact whereabouts are currently unclear. Mr Huang said the legal team tried to subpoena him.

Voulgaris has been denied visits from family members, but can be visited by her legal team and officials from the Australian office in Taipei.

An application for her release was rejected in March, with judges Cai Yirong and Hou Jingyun ruling there was substantial evidence she posed a flight risk.

Her lawyers had argued that their client had not spoken to family in three months, had difficulty adjusting to Chinese food and could not speak Chinese.

However, the judges ruled that these were ‘not factors to be taken into account in determining the need for detention’.

‘It is noted that the suspect’s daughter is aware of John’s contact details, therefore it cannot be ruled out that the suspect could use her daughter to contact John, with this request [for contact] unaffordable,” they said.

Voulgaris will appear in court in August. If found guilty, she could face the death penalty or life imprisonment, or a minimum of five years behind bars.

However, she is unlikely to receive the death penalty after Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled last August that imposing a life sentence or death penalty for drug crimes is partly unconstitutional.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said a detained Australian woman in Taiwan was receiving consular assistance.

A petition on for Voulgaris’ release has attracted 3,000 signatures.

“Anyone who knows or has met her understands the pure, kind heart she has,” the petition’s author wrote.

‘She is the mother of five children and risks the death penalty or life imprisonment. Please sign the petition to help secure the freedom of an innocent, pure mother.”

Authorities reportedly found 7kg of cocaine and heroin in her luggage (photo)

Authorities reportedly found 7kg of cocaine and heroin in her luggage (photo)

On April 23 this year, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court debated the death penalty and whether it was compatible with the country’s constitution.

This was after rights groups Amnesty International and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty challenged the constitutionality of the practice in the country.

When the challenge was raised in 2023, Eeling Chiu, Director of Amnesty International Taiwan, said: “This historic challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty in Taiwan is an opportunity not to be missed.

‘The death penalty is a violation of human rights and human dignity and must be written into the history books once and for all. The protection of human rights must not be compromised.’

According to Focus Taiwanthis year’s debate lasted five hours.

Lawyers representing both sides addressed a variety of topics, including whether the death penalty violates the right to life and equality, the principle of proportionality – and the United Nations Covenant on Civil Rights.

Three judges have withdrawn from the case, leaving twelve. They are expected to make a ruling in July, the news channel reported.

Although there is a long list of crimes punishable by death under Taiwanese law, all executions in the country since the early 2000s have been for murder.

Before 2000, Taiwan had a relatively high number of executions, but controversial cases in the 1990s and changing attitudes toward the death penalty have seen the number of executions decline since the turn of the century.

Three were conducted in 2005, and none were conducted between 2006 and 2009. Executions resumed in 2010, and 35 have been carried out since then.

Amnesty International said in 2023 that no executions have taken place in the country since 2020.

However, according to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, 49 people are currently sentenced to death.

According to a survey in the Asian Journal of Criminology, approximately 80 percent of the Taiwanese public supports the use of the death penalty.

The execution process involves some of Taiwan’s highest officials.

A judicial execution requires a final ruling from Taiwan’s Supreme Court and an execution order signed by the Minister of Justice – who also issues a final and secret execution date.

Once the order is issued, the prisoner must be executed within three days.

If new evidence comes to light, or if there is a procedural error, the execution date may be postponed. However, this only happened once.

The President of Taiwan can also grant clemency, but this is also rare.

Death row prisoners are known to be held in harsher conditions than the general population. It is believed that they will no longer be chained for 24 hours, as was previously the case, but will only be allowed to leave their cells for 30 minutes a day.

Voulgaris was arrested at Taoyuan International Airport in December (photo, file photo).  There are no indications that the persons depicted are involved in the suspected crime

Voulgaris was arrested at Taoyuan International Airport in December (photo, file photo). There are no indications that the persons depicted are involved in the suspected crime

The executions take place at 7:30 PM and are carried out in secret. No one is informed of the date, not even the convicted.

When the time comes, they are taken to the execution site where the prisoner’s identity is confirmed by a special court, which can also record any last words.

The prisoner is then served a final meal, usually including a bottle of kaoliang wine, before a strong anesthetic is administered to induce unconsciousness.

The prisoner is then laid flat on the ground and shot, either through the heart or – if he is an organ donor – through the brain stem below his ear. It is tradition for convicts to put a banknote in their leg irons as a tip for the executioners.