Anyone who has ever watched an American cop show on TV knows that when you're arrested in the United States, you have the right to legal representation. But did you know that when you're arrested and jailed in a foreign country, you're also likely to have the right to consular representation?
More than 170 states have agreed, in the event that a foreign citizen is arrested in their country, to inform the respective foreign government of the detention. The right is one of basic decency, as getting arrested abroad can be quite intimidating. It's scary enough when you don't speak the language. It's downright overwhelming when you don't know the intricacies of the criminal justice system.
Just imagine, for instance, if you were an American studying abroad in Italy -- remember Amanda Knox? -- or working in Syria and were arrested on suspicion of a serious crime. How would you plead your innocence? How would you navigate your case through the courts? How would you find a good attorney and arrange payment of your legal fees? Add to this that you're not likely to be detained in a jail whose conditions are on par with those in American prisons, and it's no surprise that foreigners arrested overseas often suffer physical decay and mental anguish.
This is exactly what the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR), which entitles an individual arrested in a foreign land to receive the aid of his or her consulate, is designed to address. Under its terms, not only must the consulate be informed of the detention "without delay," but the consulate "shall have the right to visit a national ... who is in prison, custody or detention, to converse and correspond with him and to arrange for his legal representation." That is, unless the detaining government opts to ignore these obligations and rights -- a practice that is increasingly having a detrimental effect on foreigners arrested in the United States and, reciprocally, on Americans arrested abroad.
When Americans Sarah* Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Joshua Fattal were arrested by Iranian authorities in July 2009 on espionage and trespass charges after hiking along the Iran-Iraq border, they became the latest pawns in a game of one-upmanship between the United States and Iran -- a game that put the issue of VCCR obligations front and center.
Shourd was released in September 2010 on medical grounds, and the two men received their freedom one year later, after the government of Oman reportedly paid a total of $1.5 million in "bail" for all three.