A retired regional journalist jailed in Morocco for being gay had an emotional reunion with his family on his return to Britain following his release from prison.
Ray Cole, a newspaper typesetter with the Kent Messenger Group who later moved into an editorial features role, was sentenced to four months in jail last week after police found images of a “homosexual nature” on his password-protected mobile phone.
The 69-year-old was arrested last month along with Jamal Jam Wald Ness, 20, from Marrakesh, whom Ray had gone on holiday to visit after meeting him online.
They were approached at a bus stop by police officers who detained them on suspicion of being homosexual – a crime that carries a maximum sentence of three years’ jail in Morocco.
The pair were languishing in a crowded, barbed-wire topped Marrakesh jail but Ray was granted a conditional release after an appeal was lodged.
On his return to Gatwick Airport, Ray was met by his family and told waiting reporters that he was “relieved” to be back home.
He said: “I did not expect this at all – I thought I was going to be transferred to a different prison. They gave me a choice of staying in Morocco another night or getting the next flight back.
“You would not believe it, it’s horrendous. It’s not a prison, it’s a concentration camp. People are in there from the age of 10 to 80 and 90s for nothing. I can hardly move my arm from sleeping on the floor.”
When asked about family support, he added: “I’m so proud of them – I could not have a better family.”
His son, Adrian Cole, 41, said: “Our legal team in Marrakesh lodged an appeal. It has moved much faster than we expected and the court was able to take the step of releasing my father.
“We would like to express our gratitude as a family to the thousands of people who have offered us their support and kindness. I would also like to offer my thanks to the Moroccan authorities.”
The case has generated huge interest on social media with scores of campaigners calling for the Moroccan authorities to free Ray – a retired magazine publisher – who lives in Deal, Kent.
An online petition calling for his release had reached almost 24,000 signatures.
Using the #freeraycole hashtag, the supporters pleaded for help from the likes of Stephen Fry, Clare Balding, Simon Pegg and Lord Alan Sugar to highlight the treatment of the ex-newspaper man who is 70 later this month.
English comedian Jason Manford – who’s hosting credits include The One Show, A Question of Sport: Super Saturday and Sunday Night At The Palladium, responded to their pleas, calling on Prime Minister David Cameron to act.
He tweeted: “Sort it Morocco! Either you want to be a tourist destination or you don’t. Can’t have it both ways #freeraycole You sorting this @David_Cameron.”
Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover and Deal, is urging tourists to boycott the north African country, claiming it is “unsafe” for Brits.
He told KM’s KentOnline: “It seems a very medieval process to prosecute someone and convict them for being gay.”
In a statement the Moroccan Embassy said: “Access to consular assistance and a legal defence has been duly provided to Mr Cole, who has exercised his right of appeal and is due to appear in front of the Judge of the Court of Appeals.
“In the meantime, Mr Cole is to be granted conditional release.”