Rich British hotelier and his wife face 20 years in African ‘hell hole’ prison

An African “hell hole” could face up to 20 years in prison after a wealthy British hotelier is accused of money laundering with his Italian expat wife. Simon Wood, 51, was jailed on the Paradise Island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean after he was arrested two weeks earlier along with 45-year-old Francesca Scalfari.

His family said that when he was taken into custody, the police shaved his head and then kept him in a cell with 200 other dangerous prisoners, including the killers. He also said that the couple has been denied basic necessities – including access to water – and relatives have not been allowed to visit them in jail on several occasions.

People close to the couple claim their arrest is linked to lawsuits brought against them by former investors at their hotel, The Sharzad Boutique, back in 2017. But since these cases were later settled in Simon and Francesca’s favor, they are now “at a loss” to explain why new criminal charges surfaced earlier this month.

Inmates can be jailed for up to eight months without trial under local laws, and Simon’s mother Christine Wood, of Preston, Lancashire, says she is “concerned” for their welfare.

He said: “I am deeply concerned for my son Simon and his Italian wife Francesca, who are beginning their third week of imprisonment in Zanzibar. They have now been charged with money laundering, but they are at the loss of knowing Why?

Francesca’s uncle Jim Betteridge, 62, a British ex-pat living in Tuscany, Italy, said Simon and Francesca are being kept in “primitive” conditions.

He said: “A hell hole would be a fairly accurate description. With no food or water provided, they have to buy their own water – and any food brought in is checked around and guards check it.

“It’s so hot out there, full of mosquitoes and it’s nowhere near where you want to clearly see your worst enemy. Calling it primitive would be complimentary.”

Jim explained that Simon, originally from Preston, had arrived on the beautiful island 20 years earlier, where he met his future wife, Francesca, and their son, Luca, was 11. The archipelago, which falls under the jurisdiction of Tanzania, is famous for its warm weather and soft sandy beaches – and attracts about 500,000 tourists annually.

The pair later decided to convert their beach house into a 30-room boutique hotel with £200-a-night ocean-view villas, a restaurant and swimming pool. But Jim said that when they “fell up” with two investors who had put money into the business, the couple had spent years fighting civil lawsuits in local courts.

He said: “Another Italian couple who are involved in NGOs on the mainland put money into them and became partners and they built hotels together. And then they fell out, many years ago, and three to five years There were civil cases going on until now. But Francesca and Simon won three civil cases against their former partners.

Simon Wood, Francesca Scalfari and son Luca
(Image: SWNS)

Jim said the couple, who own several businesses on the island and employ about 60 people, believed their legal trouble was behind them a few years ago. However, on 7 June he was suddenly arrested by the police and put in a local jail, where he has been kept since then.

He said: “I don’t think anyone knows how it got settled and ended now that the civil case was re-ditched and turned into this criminal state prosecution case. And it’s all blown up in the last month and a half, in fact. In, when everything was fine behind them.

The couple appeared in court for the first time yesterday (June 22) and were charged with money laundering – believed to carry a maximum fine of 20 years. And Jim says that while their families are being assisted by authorities in both Italy and the UK, the couple are suffering because of the dire conditions in their separate prisons.

He added: “They’ve both lost weight and are apparently uncomfortable and upset, obviously. To put it mildly, the prison sucks. Simon is in a series of rooms with 200 convicted prisoners and one Sleeping on the floor on the mattress.

“Francesca is in a room with about 20 people. She didn’t have water for two days and two nights – and you can only imagine what that would do to one person, let alone 20.”

Jim insists that the pair can prove their innocence, but says this is difficult to achieve as they are currently unable to get bail.

He added: “If they are allowed out they will be able to prove their innocence in no time. But inside they can’t, so they are disappointed. It’s not a good thing to look at.”

It is understood that Zanzibar’s president, Hussein Mwini, will attend a local investment forum today (June 23), where he may receive criticism for the couple’s custody.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson confirmed that they are assisting a British national currently imprisoned in Tanzania, but declined to provide any further details: “We are a British national detained in Tanzania. Supporting citizens and in touch with local authorities.”

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