A traveler’s guide to coping with arrest

[International readers: though this piece was written for an American audience, I hope you’ll find some portions of general interest.]

ronald-mcdonald-is-arrestedBefore I get started, I’d like to unequivocally state, for both the readers and the person that originally suggested that I write this piece, who fancied that I’d know a little something on this subject, that I have never been arrested while abroad. Detained, yes. Arrested, no.

No matter how straight-laced you are, it’s almost impossible to avoid minor run-ins with authorities if you’re a frequent international traveler. Indeed, in some countries you may even feel as if a sign has been taped to your back reading “Please harass me, pig-cop”. I’ve been held at Singapore’s Changi Airport for not looking like my passport photo – and I was just trying to change planes! (Incidentally, there’s no better weight loss program than four months of high-speed travel in Southeast Asia during the hot season.) I’ve been shaken down for bribes for imaginary traffic infractions in Moldova. I’ve narrowly escaped an apparent police-supported scam to frame me for the theft of “lost” money while on a magazine assignment in Kiev. Needless to say, all of those experiences were unsettling and I never even saw the inside of a police station, much less a cell.

In comparison to those events, being formally arrested while abroad is going to be significantly more disquieting. In addition to the predictable anxiety of having your life turned upside-down, you’re faced with disparate laws, foreign languages and the rare anti-American trumped-up charge, which will cumulatively amplify the pressure of an already unpleasant situation. Usually, you’ll be fairly tried under the laws of the country in question. Occasionally you will not. Events like the case of Eric Volz who, wrongfully accused of murder, spent 16 traumatic months in a Nicaraguan prison are the stuff of Hollywood dramas.

The 1993 book “Nightmare Abroad: Stories of Americans Imprisoned in Foreign Lands” by Peter Laufer details how Americans are often caught off guard by foreign legal systems where, conversely, guilt is presumed rather then innocence. Similarly, these countries are notoriously strict on the subject of release on bail while awaiting trial.

Stormtrooper-ArrestedSo, what are your rights if you’re arrested abroad? What should you do first? What’s the process for your case? I went to the official source on such matters, the US State Department, and asked Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesman Steve Royster for advice:

“Americans who are arrested abroad should immediately notify authorities that they are American citizens and that they wish to speak to their embassy or consulate. This can trigger a legal obligation to allow you access to consular officials, though we have agreements with many countries to put you in touch with American officials as soon as you’re arrested.”

While this is certainly reassuring, as Mr. Royster goes on to explain, there are things that the State Department can do and things that they unfortunately cannot do on your behalf.

“Our consular officials abroad cannot represent Americans who are arrested, but we can ensure that they are not being mistreated and provide them information on their legal proceedings, including a list of local attorneys they can retain. We can also notify their friends and family back home of their situation if they wish. It’s important to note that under US law we cannot share information about your unfortunate situation unless you give us permission. Americans should get in touch with us if they’re arrested, without fearing that we will tattle to relatives back home without their permission.”

On the subject of treatment during incarceration Royster said, “Our interest is in making sure that Americans are not mistreated, and are afforded access to the legal system wherever they may be arrested without discrimination because of their nationality. When we have concerns that the American’s welfare and safety is at risk, we will make our concerns known to the host government and urge the authorities to provide appropriate protection.”

Though it is extremely rare, Mr. Royster concluded with Americans’ options in countries where there is no US diplomatic presence: “In some countries where we don’t have a diplomatic presence, like Iran or  North Korea, we are represented by another country (a protecting power) that provides basic consular services. Where we have no presence at all – as in Somalia – we try to do what we can from neighboring countries, but cannot provide direct on-the-ground support and therefore warn Amcits (our shorthand for ‘American citizens’) not to travel to that country.”

The Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs web site gives further details about services that the Office of American Citizens Services will perform, including:

•    Visit the prisoner as soon as possible after notification of the arrest
•    Provide information about judicial procedures in the foreign country
•    Relay requests to family and friends for money or other aid
•    Provide regular consular visits to the prisoner and report on those visits to the Department of State
•    Arrange special family visits, subject to local law
•    Provide information about procedures to applications for pardons or prisoner transfer treaties, if applicable

In the grand scheme of things, even if you’re prone to a little drunken douchebaggery while on vacation, your chances of being arrested while abroad are incredibly slim. The US State Department reported that roughly 3,125 Americans were arrested between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2008, an infinitesimal number considering the grand total of international American travelers and the sizable misbehaving subset of that group. That same number looks paltry when you remove Mexico from the equation, by far the locale where Americans are most often arrested.

For the record, the US State Department’s top 20 list of cities where Americans were most often arrested from October 1, 2007, through September 30, 2008:

1. Tijuana, Mexico: 687
2. London: 256
3. Mexico City: 142
4. Hong Kong: 107
5. Nassau, Bahamas: 92
6. Tokyo: 79
7. Nogales, Mexico: 76
8. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: 73
9. Kingston, Jamaica: 70
10. Nuevo Laredo, Mexico: 69
11. Ciudad Juárez, Mexico: 58
12. Dublin, Ireland: 51
13. Guadalajara, Mexico: 50
14. Frankfurt, Germany: 47
15. Matamoros, Mexico: 45
16. Jerusalem: 37
17. Madrid: 36
18. Manila: 36
19. Montreal: 36
20. San José, Costa Rica: 35

On a sober closing note, the US State Department also noted that at least 21 US citizens have died in captivity in Mexico since 2002, including “five apparent homicides.”

Next week, I’ll address the subject of coping with detainment and bribe shakedowns while abroad.

Agonizing over travel insurance? Maybe I can help…