PENANG, Malaysia -- Convicted French heroin trafficker Beatrice Saubin blew out the 23 candles on her birthday cake and snuffed out the shadow of the hangman's noose.
Miss Saubin, the attractive high-living secretary to an Arab sheik, became the first foreigner sentenced to death under Malaysia's strict drug laws last June. She cheated the gallows last month when the federal court reduced her punishment on appeal to life imprisonment.
'They wanted to make an example of me because I'm white and they say I'm pretty,' Miss Saubin said in a jailhouse interview. 'I was very upset.'
The sparse glass-paneled visiting room, decorated with blue curtains, is located near the entrance to the dank 88-year-old Penang Jail in the heart of the teeming island capital of Georgetown.
As a warden stood at the open door, a rat shuffled across the floor and a tiny chikchak lizard broke into its full-throated song to break the monotony of the whirring ceiling fan.
Miss Saubin was dressed in shapeless off-white trousers and a boxy heavy cotton shirt, her number branded in red across the breast pocket. The ragged blue collar meant she could have certain privileges and could mix with other female prisoners.
Her brown hair was short and boyish, her fine brown eyes sunken with dark, tell-tale rings.
Miss Saubin was arrested at Penang Airport on Jan. 27, 1980, by customs agents who found 1.5 pounds of pure grade heroin stuffed into hidden compartments of her suitcase. Authorities charged she was planning to take the heroin to Paris for sell it on the street.
In court, Miss Saubin denied any knowledge of the drugs and testified she had been planning to meet her Chinese lover, Eddie Tan, in France where they were to be married. She said she was duped by Tan, who disappeared without a trace.
The judge was unimpressed.
'It must be made known too all persons who contemplate this sort of crime that the punishment, if they are caught, is invariably severe,' he said. 'It must be shown conclusively that it does not pay,' he said.
Miss Saubin was led weeping from the court and placed in solitary confinement for the two months before her appeal to await the same penalty more than 30 convicted drug pushers have received since a tough new law was adopted in 1977.
Following her initial sentence, Miss Saubin said she became addicted to the tranquilizers she took to help her sleep and fight fits of depression. Now with the trauma of pending execution lifted, she is trying to kick the pill habit.
'It was terrible,' she said. 'I had to spend a few nights in a psychiatric ward of Penang Hospital before the doctor would give me the pills I wanted to help me withdraw.'
Miss Saubin said she is convinced that the French government will come to an agreement with Malaysian authorities to commute her life sentence, under which she would have to spend at least 11 years behind bars.
'When I'm out I'll have to return to France at leastfor a time. I'll have to change my name of course. I mean who'd employ a convicted drug smuggler,' she said reaching for another cigarette.
A senior prison officer came into the room and cajoled his celebrity prisoner for smoking too much.
'They are very good to me,' she said. 'I know I get things no other prisoner gets and there are jealousies and resentment from the other women, but so far no fights and no tomboys.'
Miss Saubin has her own tape recorder and a good supply of her favorite Brazilian and new wave music, plus a steady flow of new reading material and visitors.
She also has a 10- by 10-foot cell to herself instead of jostling for privacy and space with two or three others -- and a mattress to sleep on. Other prisoners get only a thin blanket to ward off the cold dampness of the concrete slab they use as a bed.
'At night I can look up and see the stars,' the ex-secretary said. 'It's so beautiful.'
Miss Saubin said she has a $8,000 nest-egg to meet any emergencies. The money had been seized along with the heroin at the time of her arrest but was recently returned to her.
Miss Saubin said she does not enjoy the daily regimen of prison life -- up at dawn, lunch at 12, dinner at 3, lockup at 5 and lights out at 10. But it is the compulsory workshop she finds most offensive.
'I have to do tailoring,' she sighed. 'It's just not my style. I want something for my brain.'