Pathik “Tik” Root was a 21-year-old Middlebury College junior when he was arrested and imprisoned in Damascus, Syria in 2010. He had unknowingly stumbled into what he later guessed was a government protest when a plainclothes policeman took him to a state prison. Mr. Root remained there from March 18 to April 1, interrogated on a regular basis, while his desperate family waited for word on his release.
Tik’s experience was eye-opening for him, but it’s also an example of how quickly legal standings can turn sour – even dangerous – in another country.
Overseas detention is a nightmare scenario that befalls thousands of travelers every year. The National Geographic show “Locked Up Abroad” offers plenty of popularized examples. The whole show is dramatized versions of real overseas prisoners’ accounts. Some of them, like Tik, were unsuspecting students.
It’s important for traveling students to know about risks and resources before something like this happens to them in another country.
Expect the Best – Prepare for the Worst
There’s only so much the United States Government or attorneys can do for a student once he or she has been arrested. The easiest way to stay out of trouble is to avoid breaking the law in the first place.
That may seem obvious. The fact is that avoiding a brush with the law overseas can be tricky. Consider that it is illegal to chew gum in Singapore, wear high heels at Greek monuments and smoke in Bhutan. Different countries can have vastly different legal landscapes. Students should go abroad with a basic understanding of that country’s laws and legal system.
The United States Department of State website has country-specific pages that contain crime and security information, drug penalties, travel alerts and more for prospective travelers. Students can also get legal information at the local United States Embassy. The more they know about a country’s laws, the safer they are from conflict, arrest and detention.
Knowing the law and trying to stay out of trouble is sometimes not enough to protect a student from arrest. Tik was an experienced traveler before he was detained in Syria. The worst can happen in spite of the best laid preparations.
If a student is arrested, the first thing to do is alert the nearest United States Embassy. The United States Department of State can provide some help to citizens imprisoned abroad. That includes providing a list of attorneys who speak the local language, protesting any mistreatment in prison, helping transfer funds for legal fees, contacting family and friends and providing information about the local legal system and the student’s rights.
There are things the United States Department of State cannot do for detained students:
- Get the detainee out of jail
- State the detainee’s guilt or innocence in court
- Provide legal advice
- Serve as interpreters
- Pay legal fees
There are some travel insurance companies that offer legal consultation and referral benefit. Students should know whether or not they’re covered for legal mishaps before leaving the country.
ClearCause is dedicated to safe student travel. Be prepared for the unexpected. Take the Safe Journey Academy Eye-Opener Quiz to find the gaps in your knowledge.