Julia followed her heart and ended up in foreign jail cell
JULIA Fernandez followed her heart on the trip of a lifetime from Spain to Australia, but instead of it leading to happy holiday photos, lovely memories and some unwelcome sunburn, it landed her in a foreign jail for almost two years for a crime she did not commit.
Ms Fernandez spoke barely a word of English when she was arrested on November 11, 2011 after being unwittingly used as a cover to smuggle almost 300kg of cocaine into the country through the Bundaberg Port.
"When they arrested me I was very, very scared," she said.
"At first I was just looking and understanding nothing.
"It is difficult in prison not speaking English."
The innocent woman spent more than 650 days behind bars and was overwhelmed with emotion when, after a six-day trial in Bundaberg Supreme Court, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict in just two hours.
Tears streamed down Ms Fernandez's face and her small frame was racked with sobs as she thanked the jury, her lawyers and her translator.
Despite having a very close relationship with her family, which includes two brothers and a sister, Ms Fernandez said she had not wanted them at her trial.
"I think if I (was to) see my family or parents I will cry and cry and can't stop crying," she said.
"I need to concentrate (at the trial) and I cannot with them (there)."
Ms Fernandez said after she was found not guilty, she tried to call her "papa" but in her overwhelmed state, could not remember his phone number.
With the help of her friends in Spain, she managed to get her sister on the phone.
"My sister cried and I cried," she said.
"My mother and father are very happy. My family is very happy. My friends are very happy.
"It was a big surprise - a shock. It has been a very difficult time."
Ms Fernandez entered the country on a short-term tourist visa which expired while she was in jail awaiting trial.
This meant that despite being innocent, her lawyers Rian Dwyer and James Godbolt had to fight to get her a temporary bridging visa on the night of her acquittal.
"I did not want to be in jail anymore," she said of that night.
About 10pm on Wednesday, the legal team was able to secure her a visa, giving Ms Fernandez her first taste of freedom after 656 nights behind bars.
"It is very nice," Ms Fernandez said of her release which she celebrated with a cerveza (the Spanish word for beer) and a cigarette.
"I can't believe it.
"I am very good, very happy but I think I may need time now (for the shock to wear off)."
Ms Fernandez is booked on a flight back to Spain on Tuesday night where she will be reunited with her family.
While she had regular phone contact with her parents and siblings, she only saw one family member - her sister - once during her time in jail.
"First of all I'm excited to be with my family and my sister," she said.
"My sister and two friends came for a visit before Christmas but I have not seen my family (otherwise).
"I think I will live with my parents in Spain for some time."
Despite her innocence and acquittal, Ms Fernandez has sadly not been left with an entirely happy ending saying it will be very hard to rebuild her life in Spain, especially given the tough economic climate and job market.
"When you have a big big problem you have to finish it and now it (the trial) is finished, I can think of the other problems I have," she said.
"It is very difficult to find a job (after jail)."
Ms Fernandez said she had a very challenging time in the almost two years she spent in jail.
"I can't explain (what it's been like)," she said.
"It's crazy because it is only me - I have no family here, no friends, I don't speak English.
"I understood nothing. It was really really difficult."
She said the kindness of police, prison officers, a handful of other prisoners and her lawyers got her through.
"I want to thank them for everything because they were all nice to me," she said.
Ms Fernandez was lucky to meet a Spanish-speaking prison officer during her first days in custody which helped to have her downgraded to the minimum-security classification in a residential unit; still an unpleasant place to be.
"It was scary and more scary in jail and I was lucky (to be downgraded)," she said.
"The prison officers were very patient with me and tried to understand my bad English."
Prior to this trip, Ms Fernandez had never left Europe and laughed when asked whether she would travel again, saying she hadn't ruled it out.
"I don't know if I would come back to Australia (but) the people are very nice," she said.
"This is very difficult to happen once in your life but two times? Impossible."