On June 15, 2020, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison. According to news sources, Whelan was arrested in December 2018 by the FSB while he was visiting Moscow preparing to attend a friend’s wedding. Whelan spent nearly a year and a half in the Lefortovo jail prior to his conviction.
Whelan denies the allegations and says he was framed to be used as a bargaining chip with the U.S. in exchange for Russians imprisoned in U.S. jails. Despite the Russian court’s decision, Whelan’s conviction was discredited by the U.S. State Department. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement accusing Russia of denying Whelan a fair trial and demanding his immediate release.
Being involved in a foreign legal system is complex
Sometimes holidays and vacations to foreign countries don’t end well. Whenever someone gets caught in a foreign country’s legal system, there is a good reason to be concerned. Depending on the country, that person could spend the rest of their life in prison, be forced to perform hard labor, be tortured, or may not survive their prison sentence.
For example, U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier visited North Korea as a tourist and was prosecuted for stealing a propaganda poster. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was free on “humanitarian grounds.” Warmbier was returned to the U.S. in a coma and died shortly after.
While U.S. citizens fear being caught in a foreign legal system, citizens of other countries fear being caught in the United States legal system. Although the U.S. legal system can be less frightening than in other countries, the experience itself can be frightening – even when you’re the one filing the lawsuit for something like a personal injury or a wrongful death. When you’re not a U.S. citizen, the experience is less frightening when your lawyer shares your nationality.
The good news is it’s not hard to find Russian attorneys in the United States. There are a number of Russian personal injury attorneys in San Francisco and other major cities who can help Russian citizens navigate the legal system in the United States.
Being convicted of a crime in a foreign country can be terrifying
Whelan and Warmbier are just two of many U.S. citizens convicted of serious crimes in another country. Even the U.S. Embassy warns travelers that they will be subject to the laws on the books in the countries they travel within and that penalties for violations can be more severe than in the U.S. even for similar offenses.
Most people have heard about the American teenager named Michael Fay who received four lashings in Singapore back in 1994. Fay had been living in Singapore with his mother and stepfather for two years and went to an American school. His crime was theft and vandalism. Fay was originally sentenced to four months in jail and six lashings with a cane. However, his sentence was reduced to four strokes of the cane. Although he was caught with stolen road signs, Fay insisted he was coerced into confessing to charges of vandalism.
Innocent or guilty? It’s hard to tell – either way, the legal system is traumatic
It’s hard to tell whether someone is innocent or guilty, as guilty people often deny their crimes. However, the truth could be somewhere in the middle. Some people might be coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit while simultaneously being prosecuted for crimes they did commit. Others might be coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.
Being pushed through the legal system in a foreign country is traumatic for everyone, especially when the person is innocent. The lack of familiarity is one of the biggest reasons the process is frightening. A person won’t necessarily know how their case will turn out, but not knowing how severe their punishment might be can be nerve-wracking.
Perhaps the only way for travelers to protect themselves in foreign countries – even the United States – is to be on their best behavior at all times, not argue or make waves with anyone, and learn the law as much as possible before traveling abroad.