Looking back now at her harrowing experience last week in Hong Kong, where she was arrested by police at a stop-over from Israel en route to her native Australia for carrying live ammunition, 18-year-old Romy Pikoos said she was "relieved to be home by the end of it... [and] happy to be home with my family."
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post by phone from Perth, Pikoos said she encountered a terrifying scene in Hong Kong on January 15 after she was arrested by local police for having nine live bullets and two bullet shells in her possession.
Pikoos was returning from Israel, where she had participated in a year-long Bnei Akiva program that combines Jewish studies with volunteer, army and kibbutz placements. Security discovered the ammunition, which she had kept as a souvenir from her gun-training session in August, in Pikoos's backpack.
Pikoos had used the bag in which the bullets were found on a weekly basis for Shabbat overnights, and had forgotten the M16 ammunition was in her possession. The bullets were never detected by Israeli security, either within Israeli security checkpoints or at Ben Gurion Airport at the time of her departure on January 14.
A spokesperson for the Israel Airport Authority said it was "not familiar with the details of this case" and could not comment. However, the spokesperson added, "whatever the case may be, the security procedures in Israel stand in all the regulations of high authorities and under their supervision. Naturally, we cannot go into details of the procedures. Furthermore, security in Ben-Gurion Airport has a reputation for being one of the highest in the world, and our record speaks for itself."
Pikoos's bag went through Hong Kong security and continued to beep even after she removed a nail kit in it. Security subsequently searched her bag, discovered the bullets, and immediately called the police. Pikoos and her friend Talya Solomon were immediately brought in for questioning. The police met Pikoos's story with hostility, as they suspected she received formal military training in Israel.
A shocked and crying Pikoos was bombarded with questions as to whether or not she had, in fact, received such training and whether she had been "trained to shoot." Pikoos related that the police "could not understand why an 18-year-old girl had bullets."
Pikoos was not directly informed of her arrest, but rather authorities questioned Solomon as to whether or not she would remain in Hong Kong with Pikoos, or board her flight as originally planned. Unable to speak to anyone or make phone calls from jail, Solomon stayed in Hong Kong and spent the next three hours making various phone calls between Israel and Australia. Meanwhile, Pikoos was detained by police, who took her fingerprints and mug shot as well as her official statement. After Pikoos used her credit card to bail herself out, the girls were astounded to discover that the Australian embassy provided them with absolutely no help.
Informed that "we [the embassy] don't send people out because it's Sunday. We prefer to liase over the phone," the girls were stranded in Hong Kong until both Pikoos's mother and aunt arrived on the evening of January 16.
Luckily, an Australian shaliach to Shanghai, Rabbi Amos Benjamin, happened to be in Hong Kong and extended his trip in order to help the frightened girls. Benjamin arranged for a meeting with top Hong Kong lawyer Jonathan Midgely on Monday and advised the girls to obtain documentation from both Bnei Akiva, stating that the gun-training was a normal activity for the program, as well as a letter from her high school, Carmel, confirming Pikoos's graduation in December 2004 and that she would be continuing on to university upon her return to Australia.
Pikoos met with the police on January 17, where she was been told to anticipate that she would be let off with a small fine, as others in similar situations had been. However, because of the large number of bullets in Pikoos's possession, authorities were not as lenient, and decided to formally charge Pikoos at the Tuesday meeting. After some deliberation, Pikoos accepted the charges and pleaded guilty at a trial that took place the next day.
This was the quickest way for her trial to be heard, and she was anxious to return home to Australia. Pikoos simply hoped that her documents would be sufficient proof of her innocence.
An open letter written by Benzie and Jennie Pikoos, Romy's parents, concluded by stating how lucky they were that "the Hong Kong judicial system is very similar to Australia and England, and the judge she faced on Wednesday morning was a very fair and reasonable man. Romy got off with a fine equivalent to her bail of HK$3,000 (US$450), no criminal record, and she was free to come back home on Thursday evening."