Locked Up Abroad

29 June 2011 By Louisa Cowan

Every now and again you’ll see this kind of headline: “Skipper Arrested in Mexico,” “Four Yachtsman Arrested in Iranian Waters” or “Delivery Skipper and Crew Detained in Gibraltar for Drug Running;” news making scenarios that are interesting to read about, but certainly will never happen to you, right?  The thing is, you simply never know. It might be a night of stupidity that goes horribly wrong, a brief moment of indiscretion, a lapsed visa or a straightforward case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but whatever the circumstances, there is no doubt that being arrested or detained in a foreign country could be the most terrifying and alienating experience you will ever go through.

It’s a situation that no one hopes to be in, but if you find yourself in a legal snafu in a foreign land, making sure that you take the correct course of action at the time of your arrest and knowing your fundamental rights could make all the difference when fighting for your freedom.

The first thing to remember is to stay calm. Cooperate as much as possible with authorities; you'll make matters worse by losing your temper. Some countries will make life very difficult for you if they feel you’re trying to hinder their investigation.

Most countries crew visit on a yacht have signed the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (apart from Antigua and Barbuda, although there is an Honorary Consul for both British and American citizens). The Convention states that any foreigner arrested is entitled to contact their National Consul in the arresting country. If you’re arrested, insist on doing this immediately. If you are unable to contact the consul yourself, contact a crewmember, who will do it on your behalf. Upon making contact, give as much information as possible about the arrest and where you are being held.

Usually, an official will visit you, advise you on local lawyers and, if needed, make contact with your family and friends. It’s important to remember: your consul cannot fund any bail payments or pay for legal representation.

If you need legal representation, make sure you think about the following intrinsic points before deciding who to hire:
•    Choose a lawyer who can speak your language or one that you understand well
•    Choose a lawyer with previous experience of dealing with cases such as yours
•    Have the lawyer spend time explaining the local legal system and procedures to you
•    Be sure all meetings are summarized in writing, including estimated costs and timetables.

Most countries you visit have signed one of the international human rights treaties. These treaties are all fairly similar and will ensure that you are entitled to some basic rights, such as the right to a fair and public trial and the prohibition of torture or inhumane treatment whilst in custody. Should you feel that these rights are violated at any time, seek guidance from your legal representative and National Consul.

Prior to any arrest or detention situation, be sure that the vessel you work on has your up-to-date emergency contact details. You will need family and friends fighting your corner from the outside, as well as the work you are doing on the inside.

The main thing to remember is: if you break the law when in a foreign country, you are bound by their legal system and should be prepared to face the consequences of your actions. Even a lapsed visa can lead to detention until deportation, not a pleasant experience. When the boat is traveling in dodgy locales, make sure you remain vigilant. But no matter where you are, stick to the laws and you have the best chance of staying on the right side of the law.