Jason Dinh, a 41 year old Vietnamese American, was found guilty and given the death sentence in late April 2014 for trying to smuggle more than 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of heroin from Vietnam to Australia. He was originally arrested in June. Prior to 2013 Vietnam executed prisoners by firing squad, but now use lethal injection. He was reportedly attempting to pay off a large gambling debt. While this is a difficult situation, this isn’t a new story.
According to the U.S. State Department, there are over 2,500 Americans arrested abroad annually. That is an average of seven people per day, every day of the year. (More than 30 percent of those arrests are drug related.) It’s possible you could become one of those people for a variety of other reasons. For example, you might be arrested simply to get you to pay a bribe to be allowed to leave the country.
If you’re arrested or detained, it’s important to know the legal rights an American enjoys in the United States don’t transfer to another country. Each country is sovereign and its laws apply to everyone who enters regardless of nationality. If you have doubts about the laws in the country where you want to visit or live, it would be worth your time to conduct some research before you travel.
The things you learn might surprise you. For example in Singapore, smoking in public buildings, littering, jaywalking, spitting, feeding birds in public places, chewing gum on the local transport system, and failing to flush public lavatories are considered civic crimes, which result in fines. The situation may be more serious than just a fine. Importing pork products into Yemen carries a maximum punishment of death. Be sensitive to the reading materials you’re carrying too. For example, Muslim countries won’t allow magazines that show excessive skin. In most countries, taking photographs of government facilities or religious symbols is also a crime. The list goes on and on.
Regardless of the crime you are charged with committing, the United States government or embassy personnel cannot get you released from foreign jails. However, they will insist on prompt access to an arrested American. They can also provide a list of English-speaking attorneys and information on the host country’s legal system, and will offer to contact your family or friends for you. They will even visit you on a regular basis, protest any mistreatment, monitor jail conditions, and provide dietary supplements. Other than these few services, they can’t do much for you.
If you’re arrested, then ask to speak to someone from the embassy. It might take some time for them to honor your request. Be respectful, patient, and persistent.
For more than 25 years, Steve was an intelligence community professional who traveled and lived throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America. He now uses his experiences and formal training to help people overcome their reluctance to travel by giving them the solid, reliable information they can use to plan effectively, reduce risk, react to danger, and return home safe.