So you’ve been traveling, broadening your mind, experiencing other cultures — but something’s gone wrong, and now a cop who doesn’t speak English is closing a cell door on you. What do you do now? How can you get yourself out of this?
Prevention — Avoid the Problem to Begin With
Well, it’s not going to be easy, so the best course of action is not to get into this situation in the first place. Luckily that’s not actually hard. If you make sensible travel plans and do some preparation before you leave, you can easily avoid most brushes with the law abroad.
First, research the countries you plan to visit. If a country is so unstable that the US has no diplomatic presence there, or the State Department advises you not to visit, then there’s a simple solution — don’t visit. A vacation in Afghanistan isn’t a cool adventure; it’s dangerous.
Know the Law
Assuming your destination isn’t a failed state, though, you should be fine as long as you obey the law. Of course, that means knowing what the law is. Don’t assume that it’s the same as it is in the US — or, worse, that local cops will be understanding about you acting as you would in the US. They won’t, and protesting that you have a Constitutional right to bear arms in London, sing the Horst Wessel song in Berlin or criticize Mohammed in Kuwait City will get you exactly nowhere.
Ignorance of the law is no defense, so make sure you read the State Department’s resources on the countries you plan to visit; they highlight any particular legal issues. Frequent flashpoints are alcohol — which is severely restricted in most majority-Muslim countries — and free speech, which is limited in many places. Blasphemy is a crime in much of the world, for example. Displaying Nazi emblems can mean jail time in Germany, and denying the Holocaust is illegal in much of Europe. Our right to free speech means nothing outside our borders; it will not help you.
If you do find yourself arrested, stay calm and cooperative. Don’t try to argue or bluster; if you’ve broken the law in another country the US Marines aren’t coming to your rescue, and the local cops know that. Just do what you’re told, say as little as possible and try to avoid confrontation.
As a US citizen arrested abroad you have a right to have the US Embassy informed of your arrest. You shouldn’t visit countries where this right is not respected. You also have a right to be visited by consular staff, where possible. Be realistic about this, though.
Consular staff will visit to ensure you’re being treated properly and given all your rights under local law. They can tell people back home you’ve been arrested, pass messages from family and friends to you if you don’t have access to mail or phones, brief you on the local legal system and give you lists of lawyers and translators. What they can’t do is interfere on your behalf.
There’s no point telling a consulate staffer, “Get me out of here!” — they can’t and they won’t. If you commit a crime abroad, and the host country treats you in accordance with their own laws, the United States will do nothing to help you. As far as your government’s concerned, you shouldn’t have broken the law. The best course of action is to not break it.
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