true stories Real Stories of Americans Who Were Locked Up Abroad  

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Americans imprisoned abroad almost always find themselves in either North Korea or Iran, usually for violating minor laws. And they're almost always treated as spies, saboteurs, or threats that want to overthrow the government. With incredibly harsh laws about who can enter or leave, these dictatorships treat foreigners caught illegally on their soil with the same cruelty their citizens get - but dressed up for the cameras.

Even an act as simple as bringing forbidden electronics or a Bible has dire consequences for Americans locked up abroad. Many Americans have been held in North Korea on trumped up charges, after being convicted in show trials. Others have been released only at the behest of presidents or other big-time political actors. And Iran has ransomed Americans for huge amounts of money, only after holding them in unbelievably harsh prisons.

Here are some of the stories of Americans held in foreign jails, usually for minor crimes. Learn from these people, and maybe rethink your next trip to a country ruled by a brutal dictatorship.
1

The Student Imprisoned in North Korea for Stealing a Poster


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North Korea has among the most restrictive and punitive legal systems in the world. Countless citizens languish in labor camps for minor offenses, or even for simply being related to a criminal. Thirteen Americans have been detained by North Korea, most for illegally entering the country, but a few for ridiculously petty crimes. Despite their harsh sentences, however, none have ever been held for more than two years.

The most recent was American student Otto Warmbier, given 15 years of hard labor for the "crime" of stealing a propaganda poster from the hotel where he was staying. The only evidence of the theft was a grainy surveillance video, and it's likely Warmbier was made a scapegoat for increased sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom.
2

Businessman Locked Up in North Korea - And Nobody Knows Why


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A naturalized American born in South Korea, Kim Dong Chul was sentenced to hard labor in a North Korean prison, with conflicting reasons as to why. Kim's incarceration wasn't even public knowledge until January 2016, when DPRK officials introduced him to a CNN camera crew.

His official crime is said to be espionage, but a North Korean defector claims that Kim was taken into custody because he was doing unauthorized missionary work in the country. In strictly secular North Korea, that is enough of a pretense for arrest.

3

The Rogue Commando Arrested in Afghanistan


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Jonathan Idema was one of the most controversial figures in the shadowy world of special forces and military contracting. After a career spent running various military-related businesses and dodging charges for everything from fraud to attempted murder, Idema found himself in Afghanistan, running a secretive "task force" that had no connection to the US military. He was apparently looking for Osama Bin Laden. The US disavowed knowledge of him, though they did interrogate one suspect Idema brought them.

Idema and two other men, one of whom was a journalist covering him, were arrested by Afghan authorities and charged with illegal entry. Afghan police found Idema with several suspected Al-Qaeda member who were hanging upside down by their feet. The other men were eventually released, but Idema ended up serving over three years in prison. Upon his release, he refused to leave Afghanistan until he was returned his personal effects, computer, and cash. After several months, he left the country. After more fringe involvement with the War on Terror, Idema died in 2012.
4

The Contractor Arrested for Bringing Computers to Cuba


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Working for a Clinton administration program to break Cuba's information blockade, Alan Gross was arrested after making five trips to deliver computers to the island's small Jewish community. Taken into custody in late 2009, he was alleged to have delivered smart phones, laptops, wireless modems, flash drives, and iPods to a minority numbering less than 2,000 people. Gross spent five years in prison (he was sentenced to 15) before President Obama finally was able to get him released - the first move in the administration's thaw with Cuba.

The program Gross was working for was criticized as being ill-thought out and wasteful, and Gross sued the US Agency for International Development, which ran the program.