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Foreign Prison No Bed of Roses for Americans : Crime: In some countries, U.S. citizens have committed offenses without even knowing it because there is no equivalent law in the United States.

August 16, 1992|CHRIS TORCHIA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

When he thinks of Aruba, Ron Bogue does not remember sunny beaches and blue Caribbean waters. For this American, Aruba brings to mind grimy jail cells, drug dealer inmates and the numbing boredom of captivity.

"I would kill a roach and watch the ants come in and dismember him and carry him off," said Bogue, 43, a former Boston computer executive who was jailed for almost three months in 1989. "It would pass the whole day. You just find yourself having to occupy your mind."

Bogue, who later was acquitted of tax fraud in connection with a small scuba-diving business he owned in Aruba, is among thousands of Americans who have spent time in foreign jails.

Some, like Bogue, claim that they were wrongly arrested, held by police in harsh conditions and denied proper access to a lawyer.

"This is far and away the most frightening experience that any of these people have ever faced," said Theodore Simon, attorney for the International Legal Defense Counsel. "We're talking about their very survival."

The Philadelphia-based law office, which aids Americans imprisoned abroad, estimates that 1,500 to 2,000 Americans are being held in foreign jails on such charges as drug possession, customs violations and disorderly conduct.

About 3,000 Americans were arrested overseas in 1991, about a third of them in Mexico and one-sixth in Jamaica, according to State Department figures. But Simon said the figure may be as high as 10,000.

In some countries, Americans have committed crimes without even knowing it because there is no equivalent law in the United States.

For example, some nations forbid taking artifacts out of the country. And in Mexico, police often detain everyone involved in an auto accident until it is determined who was at fault, Simon said.

"In Greece, the mere overcharging of a credit card is a criminal offense," he said. "Here, it would be considered no more than a minor embarrassment."

Billy Hayes, whose five-year ordeal in Turkish prisons for drug smuggling was depicted in the 1978 movie "Midnight Express," said he came to appreciate American justice only after losing it.

"There's this idea that if you're American, you can get away with a lot," said Hayes, 45, an actor and stage director in Los Angeles. "That's not true. It's almost the opposite these days.

"A lot of people go traveling and either through stupidity or ignorance don't realize that there are laws that are different from where we are. They find out the hard way."

Some Americans who have been arrested abroad tell stories of being isolated in filthy prisons, with few means of getting in touch with their families.

"There is the problem of being confined with others who don't speak the same language, who have different cultures," said Arthur von Mehren, a law professor at Harvard University. "To the extent that there is any society in prison, you are an outsider to that society."

The families back home, like that of Samy Wassef, an American citizen who was born in Egypt, harbor their own tales of hardship.

Wassef, 29, was a medical student at the University of Cairo when he was arrested in 1988 on charges of spying for the United States. He is serving a 10-year sentence in an Egyptian prison.

"Nothing works. I don't know what to do," said his mother, Blanche Wassef, of Troy, Mich. "It is too much to handle for us."

Wassef's family, who say he is innocent, have spent more than $40,000 in legal fees and other efforts to get him out of prison. Blanche Wassef has held two hunger strikes, one in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.

"There are 2,000 American families that are trying to stay afloat," said Ellen Pattis of Aiken, S.C., whose brother, Jon, spent five years in an Iranian jail. "They are not fighters. They don't have time to stay on the telephone and to argue and to write letters."

Jon Pattis was accused of being a spy and sentenced to 10 years in prison after Iraqi jets bombed an Iranian satellite station where he had been working during the Iran-Iraq war in 1986. He was released last October.

Ellen Pattis said she pestered the State Department for years to get her brother released and complained that he was ignored when he returned to the United States.

"My brother came home weighing 113 pounds and nobody even said, 'How are you?' " she said.

But a State Department official, who declined to be identified, said the American government has less clout in countries like Iran where it has no diplomatic representation.

"It's kind of a misconception that we can get them out," she said. "You can't send in the Marines."

A U.S. embassy or consulate can ship money and messages from family members, offer a list of local lawyers and protest if the American prisoner is mistreated.

The United States has drawn up prisoner transfer treaties with some countries, such as Mexico, Turkey and Thailand, that allow Americans in foreign jails to return home and serve out their sentences.

American politicians also sometimes contact foreign embassies to appeal for the release of prisoners being held in their countries.

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