Wrongly imprisoned

5th of November 2018
Wrongly imprisoned

“Take the laces out of your shoes and take off your belt.” Life was rosy for Joseph Oubelkas until December 2004. Dutch mother. Moroccan father. Raised in a Dutch village. VSR’s John Griep reports.

Until as a young man he was taken into custody in Morocco on suspicion of involvement with drugs trade. Oubelkas ended up in jail and would remain there – despite being entirely innocent – for five years. Even after a lawyer in the Netherlands determined that he ‘did not even deserve a fine’ and the Foreign Office had confirmed that he had been wrongly convicted.

Oubelkas, 38, has lived in the Netherlands as a free man for nearly 10 years now. He is a platform speaker and tells others about his experiences, and about how we can determine what effect an event has on us. He inspires business leaders in this way, and I was able to hear his story – along with over 80 members and non-members – during the VSR summer party.

Oubelkas explained: “I was 23 and IT was booming. I’d been working for one of my clients in Morocco for some time. I had a car and shook hands with directors. Until, one day, drugs were found at the company of one of my customers. I had just driven up and asked a customs officer what was going on. He asked for my passport, and before I knew it I was in a cell.”

Find a goal

The reason: the police found that his passport had 22 entry stamps and 17 exit stamps. Morocco decided this meant he was a frequent smuggler. The unbelievable happened - on the basis of this alone, the judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison, even though it later emerged that there were 11 entry stamps and 10 exit stamps in his passport.

There were dozens of prisoners in his cell. He witnessed violence, there was a single toilet – a hole in the ground – and he would get a dollop of white, green or yellow slop with a piece of old bread on his plastic tray twice a day. He took solace in letters and cards, particularly those from his mother. “Focus,” she wrote. “Find a goal.” “Take care of yourself.”

Oubelkas has stuck by this lesson. Personal hygiene was next to impossible, but he brushed his teeth three times a day. He helped out at the little shop, gave English lessons and was later allowed to tend to a garden plot (where he would grow the red-white-blue Dutch flag in flowers using seeds from his mother, as a silent protest). The situation in his cell did not change.

Until Morocco extradited him to the Netherlands in 2009. Once back in the country, his release was immediate. He wrote a book – 400 letters from my mother – and is now inspiring people with his story: students, employers, football teams and (cleaning) contractors.

Also as a cleaning contractor there will be things you have to go through: rules change to your detriment, you lose a contract, a colleague resigns. Lots of scope for disappointment. Oubelkas teaches us an important lesson in the face of all this: he is often asked how he survived it. He has just one answer: attitude. “I could blame the outside world, but that would mean deserting my own power. The prison was not my world; I MADE it my world. It’s up to you. One hundred per cent. Always.”


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