Most of my 20+-year career at State Department was spent abroad. One of my first assignments was as the Chief of Security at the U.S. Embassy in Togo, West Africa. I will never forget accompanying a consular office on a health and welfare visit to the local jail. The local police notified the Embassy that they arrested a 20-year-old American for smoking a marijuana joint on the beach. Grim does not adequately describe the prison conditions. The jailers routinely stripped prisoners naked. The prisoners received a tin cup for a toilet, a tin cup for water (which was provided from a tap: declared unsafe to drink or bathe in by the Peace Corps doctor assigned to the Mission) and a communal bowl for food. As a courtesy to the U.S. Embassy, the American was allowed to wear his underwear.
Americans must realize that, despite what many mistakenly believe, your U.S. civil rights end once you cross the border. Whatever country you visit, remember it is their country and their laws. The U.S. constitution does not apply. Many country’s laws permit internment without charge for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because the local security suspects you of some crime. Years ago, as a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, I was assigned to an air base in a European country with close ties to the United States. One of the first problems I dealt with involved the wife of a soldier in my unit who had been in jail for over a month. She happened to be in a bar with her husband when the police raided the place. Everyone in the bar went to jail. There was no appeal. Under the Status of Forces agreement we were able to free the husband, but it took a month to get the wife out as she was there as a tourist visiting her husband.
The U.S. Embassy cannot free you from a foreign jail. They cannot provide you with legal advice, or interpret/translate on your behalf. They will provide you with certain types of very specific assistance. The Embassy is constrained by international law to participate directly in the foreign legal process on your behalf. Do not expect the U.S. Government to pay any legal fees or fines: They will transfer funds to you from friends or relatives, if permissible under local prison rules, but that is all.
The Consular Officer will provide you a list of local attorneys who speak English. Embassy personnel will contact family members or employers for you, but only if you give them written permission to do so. Consular Officers will work on your behalf to ensure you get proper medical care, and will conduct regular health and welfare visits. That is, however, just about the extent of what your government can do for you when you are in trouble abroad.
Just remember, when you travel abroad, recognition of your constitutional rights by foreign authorities exists only in fiction books. How you are treated and what happens to you depends on the specific country’s laws and constitution.
By the way, the Togo story had a happy-ending. The authorities released and deported the 20-year-old a few days after my visit.
As Vice President of a Security Fusion Center, Bill has provided risk management advice and direction to major Fortune 100 defense industry, ultra high net worth and other clients.
As Global Director for Security, Alem International, Bill planned and directed all facets of the security and risk mitigation strategies for the 2004 Olympic Torch Relay that took place in over 34 countries.
Bill was commissioned as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Officer in the US Army immediately after college.
Mr. Gaskill has a Bachelor of Science degree in Ancient History with a math minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.He has a current Top Secret/SCI clearance.He has professional fluency ratings in Spanish, Greek, Hebrew and French, and has a working knowledge of Russian.