A PRACTICAL joke that backfired on a Phuket holiday has left a mother stranded in Thailand, and her four daughters - aged between six and 12 - distraught about her absence.
Annice Smoel, 36, yesterday called on the Federal Government for help in an emotional telephone call from Thailand, where she has been granted bail on a charge of "night time" theft.
She has missed being with her eldest daughter, who has had emergency surgery for appendicitis, and the 11th birthday of her second-eldest.
Her brother-in-law, Gary Smoel, who, with his wife, is caring for the children, said the 12-year-old was too upset to go to school. The girls were at first told their mother's passport had been stolen, but Mr Smoel had to tell them the truth on Monday night.
The chairman of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Bernard Murphy, said Mrs Smoel, from Melbourne, had committed no crime. She had been absent when two friends placed a bar mat in her handbag as a joke.
She was detained by police, spent four nights in jail, and is now stuck in Thailand with her husband as she faces another 14 weeks on bail until the next phase of her prosecution.
Mr Murphy said prosecutors had estimated she could spend between one and five years in a Thai prison if found guilty.
The two friends - who were travelling with her to celebrate her mother's birthday - have apologised in a sworn statement for hiding the bar mat in what they called a silly joke.
The women, named Samantha and Jodie, said in the statement that police had been told Mrs Smoel had been unaware of the mat from the Aussie Bar in Phuket being placed in her bag.
They said police initially let her go, but she was stopped later by bar staff, and sent to a police booth.
"What started off as a very silly joke has turned into a very serious matter and for that we are sincerely apologetic," the women said.
Yesterday, Mrs Smoel described her horror at the time she had spent in jail. She believed she and her friends had been targeted because they were women "on our own" in a group without a man to talk to police about a bribe.
"If there had … been a man with us to do that for us, then that would have been done and that would have been the end of it," she said. "Because we were women on our own. It's just gone ridiculously out of context. It's just crazy."
But the owner of Aussie Bar, Steve Wood, told radio 3AW in Melbourne he understood police had chased Mrs Smoel to the beach, and that she had been disrespectful to a senior policeman.
"I think it's more an attitude problem … than a crime problem," he said. The bar had not pressed charges over the missing mat, worth $50 or $60.
He said his telephone had run "red hot" with callers saying they would not return to the bar.
Darren Smoel, Mrs Smoel's husband, said he would not return to Australia without her.
Gary Smoel said: "She went over for a girls' week away. She innocently left her handbag with some friends. They played a silly joke and she's wearing the consequence. Is that right?"
Late yesterday, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said Australia was providing consular support. There had been direct contact with the Thai administration. "Our officials in Bangkok are doing everything possible on the ground," Mr Rudd said.