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Special Excerpt
The Atkins Zone
The Houdini of fast escapes from international prisons advises on how to get out—and stay out—of jail while traveling abroad. Plus, some good reasons to avoid getting slammed in these six notorious tourist traps.
—By Shan-san Wu

By attorney Dick Atkins's estimates, about 10,000 Americans are arrested abroad annually—that's four times more than the official State Department figure. What could account for the glaring discrepancy? According to Atkins (who is featured in Contributing Editor Robert Young Pelton's Tip Sheet this month), most arrests simply aren't reported—cases that are resolved quickly through bribes or a few days of jail time rarely make it onto the official list. And while the vast majority of travelers abroad will never find themselves on the wrong side of the law, being arrested in a foreign country can quickly turn a dream trip into a nightmare.

"Families are almost always shocked when they hear about the condition of a loved one who has been incarcerated overseas," says Atkins.

He should know. Having spent the past 23 years helping Americans get out of legal trouble abroad, Atkins approximates that he has helped win freedom for more than a thousand Americans being held in foreign custody. His services are sought by congressmen seeking help for detained constituents, travel insurance agents looking into high-stakes claims, and people who call his hotline, which offers around-the-clock legal advice.

According to Atkins, more than half of those who call his hotline are in need of immediate help—from fast legal advice to getting a reputable local lawyer on the case. Some of his clients are travelers to developing countries who have found themselves in jail after breaking laws they didn't know existed. And for many, the prospect of extended jail time is a real one.

"A few years ago, one of my clients was an American who went to France to snowboard," says Atkins. "He was arrested, thrown in jail, and charged with causing an avalanche."

In situations like these, Atkins can muster considerable resources. Two years ago, Atkins received a call from an American thrown in a Japanese cell for marijuana possession. Unfamiliar with the intimacies of local law, Atkins quickly mobilized a group of Japanese students from the University of Pennsylvania Law School to help. Another standout example: An American facing 15 years in a Thai prison for defacing an image of the king—he'd torn up Thai currency in a fit of air rage—was set free after Atkins called in a doctor of forensic psychology who convinced the authorities that his client was mentally unstable.

"That was definitely one of the more bizarre cases I've worked on," says the Philadelphia-based attorney. "In the end, they released him without a trial."

Atkins's success in freeing incarcerated Americans abroad hasn't gone unnoticed. He has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on international prisoner transfer agreements and wrote a guide to prisoner transfer treaties for the UN. For years, human rights organizations like Amnesty International have referred clients seeking help for friends or loved ones in trouble abroad, and his expertise as the Houdini of hard times has been documented by newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Here, Atkins reveals the world's most notorious and unexpected tourist traps, describes the worst prisons on Earth, and offers advice—sans consultation fee—on how to avoid getting sent to them. As a bonus, Atkins gives a few tips on what to do if you find yourself in the hands of an unfamiliar legal system. Here's to hoping you'll never have to use them.

Attorney Dick Atkins provides a free initial consultation (+1 215 977 9982; Dickatkins@aol.com).

The view from behind bars
• Bail is almost always denied.
• Use of torture is allegedly widespread.
• Access to legal counsel during interrogation and trial is not guaranteed.
• Penal code includes beheading and public flogging.
What will get you locked down
• The use or possession of alcohol (zero tolerance).
• The breaking of morality laws—including dress and head-covering codes for women—which are enforced by religious police.
• Possession of pornography.
• Engagement in homosexual acts.
Atkins's advice
Remember that a confession may be the most practical way to prevent interrogation from escalating to actual torture—and give you time to seek legal representation.

The view from behind bars
• Inadequate food and medical care.
• Lengthy detention times before trial without (bail) are common.
• No prisoner transfer agreement exists between India and the U.S.
• Americans can be targeted for extortion by the corrupt, underpaid police.
What'll get you locked down
• Disputes over business contracts can be settled by the criminal justice system.
Atkins's advice
Discreet payments, or baksheesh, could get you out of trouble or better treatment.

The view from behind bars
• The police have been accused of torturing U.S. citizens to extract confessions.
• Meals and medical care are often inadequate; in some cases, you may have to pay out of pocket for all of your prison expenses.
• Conditions can be violent; an American was allegedly beaten to death in jail by inmates and a prison guard in 2000.
• Detention while waiting for a trial can last for weeks or longer.
• Inmates are sometimes targeted for extortion by underpaid prison guards and officials.
What'll get you locked down
• Possession of firearms and/or ammunition almost always results in jail time.
• Drivers involved in accidents in which someone is seriously hurt are automatically jailed—sometimes for months—pending determination of fault and payment of restitution.
Atkins's advice
If you are jailed, make sure that your lawyer knows about the Prisoner Transfer Treaty and that everything possible is being done to get you transferred to an American prison.

The view from behind bars
• Harsh prison conditions made worse by inmate violence or extreme altitude.
• Slow judicial processes mean long pretrial detention times.
What'll get you locked down
• Extremely harsh drug laws.
Atkins's advice
Coca leaf preparations are traditionally used to counter the effects of altitude sickness by locals and tourists alike; avoid all other forms of coca.

The view from behind bars
• Despite generally good treatment by prison officials, prisons are overcrowded, extremely humid, and uncomfortable.
• Slow judicial processes can result in long pre-trial detention times.
What'll get you locked down
• Drug-related offenses can be punished with a lifetime prison sentence or the death penalty.
• Many (mostly women) are duped into becoming drug mules when they agree to transport a package or suitcase out of the country in exchange for money or a free vacation.
Atkins's advice
Despite the availability of cheap drugs, remember the consequences.

The view from behind bars
• Isolation: It is extremely difficult to contact people who are in Chinese jails.
• No prisoner transfer treaty exists between the U.S. and China.
• There is no independent monitoring of Chinese prison conditions.
What'll get you locked down
• The criminal justice system is used to enforce business contracts in a dispute. There are currently around 30 Americans jailed for business-related offenses in China. (Many claim that they are in jail for refusing to pay bribes.)
Atkins's advice for travelers
If you're arrested in China? Pray.

Attorney Dick Atkins provides a free initial consultation (+1 215 977 9982; Dickatkins@aol.com).

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December 2003/January 2004

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