Americans Who Were Locked Up For Minor Offenses In Foreign Countries

A dream vacation can quickly become a nightmare. That's something that these travelers who broke the law know all too well. Millions of Americans travel overseas every year, but not all of them make it back home - an average of 2,500 U.S. citizens are arrested abroad every year.

Some tourists who landed in jail were engaged in obviously illegal activity, like smuggling drugs. But other Americans locked up abroad likely didn't even know they were breaking the law. After all, other countries are run by a very different set of legal rules. Some offenses that are considered serious aren't even criminal in the United States.

From cycling in the wrong place to refusing to engage with flirtatious strangers, the reasons why these Americans were locked up often seem ridiculously overblown. But it's important to remember that every culture operates differently; even celebrities can't avoid international run-ins with the law.

Photo: Riemann / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • Otto Warmbier Was Given Hard Labor In North Korea For Stealing A Poster

    Otto Warmbier Was Given Hard Labor In North Korea For Stealing A Poster
    Video: YouTube

    In 2016, at the age of 21, Otto Warmbier was arrested in North Korea and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. He was convicted of stealing a propaganda poster from the hotel he was staying at. Video footage was released of Warmbier pleading his case in a Pyongyang court, tearfully saying, "It was the worst decision of my life, but I am only human."

    Unfortunately for Warmbier, the rising tensions between North Korea and the United States has only made his situation worse. Sports agent David Sugarman, who has campaigned for the release of U.S. citizens from North Korea, continues to speak out on Warmbier's behalf. "North Korea has been in the news lately but it has nothing to do with Otto," he said in April 2017. "[Yet] there is a solution to all of this and it is not war."

  • A Woman Was Jailed In Dubai For Ignoring Men

    A Woman Was Jailed In Dubai For Ignoring Men
    Photo: ahsonwardak / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    In February 2016, an unidentified 25-year-old American woman was jailed in Dubai. She was allegedly approached by two men as she waited for a taxi at the Abu Dhabi International Airport, and "refused to engage with them."

    The woman was charged with insulting the United Arab Emirates. However, a psychological evaluation showed that she was mentally ill, and she was acquitted.

  • Kian Tajbakhsh Was Imprisoned In Iran On False Espionage Charges
    Photo: Pkilpadi / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Scholar Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested in Tehran, Iran in 2009. He was accused of endangering national security, contacting foreign elements, and espionage, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The charges likely stemmed from his work with the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit aimed at promoting democracy.

    Thankfully, Tajbakhsh was allowed to leave Iran in 2016 so that he would be able to work at Columbia University in New York.

  • A Man Was Arrested For Cycling In Hong Kong

    A Man Was Arrested For Cycling In Hong Kong
    Photo: barnyz / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    In 2015, an American who identified himself as "Lee" was stopped and arrested by Hong Kong police for riding a bicycle in a "restricted area." Lee tried to explain that he was just walking the bike, but then police asked for identification, which he did not have with him at the time. Lee was led off by the officers, who believed that he might be in the country illegally.

    The U.S. State Department warns Americans that "[International] police have the right to take you in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you."

  • Tony Kim Was Detained In North Korea For Supposedly Hostile Acts

    Tony Kim Was Detained In North Korea For Supposedly Hostile Acts
    Video: YouTube

    In April 2017, American professor Kim Sang-duk - also known as Tony Kim - was arrested as he was boarding a flight out of Pyongyang International Airport in North Korea. Kim had just finished several weeks of teaching at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

    Originally, North Korean officials didn't give a reason for Kim's arrest. Later, they said he had committed "hostile acts" and was plotting to overthrow the government. Many people believe that Kim hadn't broken any laws at all; instead, he was detained to send a message to the United States as tensions are ramped up between the two countries.

    New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told CBS News"They use... these detainees from the United States as bargaining chips. They always want something in return."

  • Michael Fay Was Caned In Singapore For Vandalism

    Michael Fay Was Caned In Singapore For Vandalism
    Photo: Calvin Teo / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

    In 1994, 19-year-old Michael P. Fay was sentenced to four months in jail and six strokes with a rattan cane in Singapore. He had been charged with two counts of vandalism and possession of a stolen road sign. He described the effects of the caning:

    "The skin did rip open... There was some blood. I mean let's not exaggerate, and let's not say a few drops or that the blood was gushing out. It was in between the two. It's like a bloody nose... The first couple of days it was very hard to sit."