What happens if an American commits a crime in a less-than-free foreign country?
January 3, 2005 8:41 PM   Subscribe

What happens if an American commits a crime in a less-than-free foreign country? [MI]

What would happen if an American commited an act that is legal in most of the world, but illegal in the country they are in? (In orther words, not murder/theft/etc.) Would they be indefinitely imprisoned? Deported?

Specifically, I'm thinking, what if an American family moved to China as Christian "missionaries." This sort of thing is not legal in China. What would happen if they were caught? Wouldn't this spark an international incident if an American family was held in China for something like this? I thought China would save face by just deporting them, but my friend says China would jail them for however long they want.
posted by BradNelson to Law & Government (25 answers total)
I believe that whether the act is illegal or not outside of the country it's commited is irrelevant. They'd more than likely be tried like a local.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:52 PM on January 3, 2005

You are bound by the laws of the country you are in. That's the "correct" answer, but as you alluded to, politics and backroom negotiations are common partners with any international incidents. So the true answer I guess is, "it depends".
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 8:53 PM on January 3, 2005

In my not so worldly opinion, you have to follow the law of the land, the country will punish individuals as per it's justice system, and then the home country can appeal for deportation and maybe prisoner exchange.
posted by riffola at 8:54 PM on January 3, 2005

Well an American could get caned, depending on the country. The Constitution doesn't follow us around (as much as we may want it to).
posted by Handcoding at 9:02 PM on January 3, 2005

Response by poster: You are bound by the laws of the country you are in.
The Constitution doesn't follow us around...

This much is really obvious. It just seems like such an innocuous crime, compared to theft and such. I guess the real question is how successful American pleas for deportation would be.
posted by BradNelson at 9:13 PM on January 3, 2005

I think that in the particular hypothetical situation that you are asking about, China would jail missionaries in order to show the rest of the world that they could. After all, religion is the opiate of the masses, etc.
posted by bingo at 9:14 PM on January 3, 2005

I lived in Romania when homosexuality was not quite illegal everywhere but definitely something that could get you in trouble with the police. I was with a group of American, Australian and European educators, some gay, some not. We got briefed before we went that the consulate would try very hard to help us out if we ran afoul of what the US Government considered to be stupid laws. At the same time, were told that if we broke any of the local drug laws [mostly stiffer than the ones in the US at the time, and definitely less due process &c.] that they would -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- just leave us to the Romanians to deal with. In a related story, that "Dude Where's My Car?" guy just got released after three years in a Pakistani prison for opium smuggling. And remember the kid who got caned in Singapore for vandalism?

According to this article, on your specific question, missionaries are often just asked to leave. Since the "no missionaries" position is basically a Beijing one and many of the outer regions of China are both less anti-Christian and also cash poor, the missionaries coming in with, as the article says "bags of money" is not always a bad thing.
posted by jessamyn at 9:15 PM on January 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

"Since the "no missionaries" position is basically a Beijing one...."

Funny, because I could have sworn that I read that any other position is illegal in Washington, D.C.

posted by aberrant at 9:21 PM on January 3, 2005

During the regular purges of the English-teacher expat community here in Korea, loads of non-very-smart young foreigners are arrested for possession of drugs, which are a big no-no here (but like many no-nos, fairly common nonetheless).

Generally, they are deported, rather than having to serve the severe jail sentences that are de rigeur for Korean nationals. This is merely a datapoint, though.

In most cases riffola has it spot on.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:21 PM on January 3, 2005

Response by poster: Since the "no missionaries" position is basically a Beijing one and many of the outer regions of China are both less anti-Christian

The family in question is going to a central province, nowhere near Beijing.
posted by BradNelson at 9:27 PM on January 3, 2005

Response by poster: Also, they are not going as "missioinaries," but as English teachers. But they also happen to be very religious Christians and will not be giving that up. But the question is really hypothetical.
posted by BradNelson at 9:28 PM on January 3, 2005

Recent notice from Amnesty International

My understanding is that religious activities used to be tolerated as long as they were "compliant to the socialist society" (i.e. no rabble rousing) but that now you've got to be aligned with state-approved congregations, except as others have noted above.

It just seems like such an innocuous crime

When your country has held together for a few millenia, your voice will carry more authority on this judgment. Also, torture happens, alas, now even in less-than-free DOMESTIC countries.
posted by planetkyoto at 10:38 PM on January 3, 2005

The likeliest outcome, should they be accused of illegal missionary proselytizing, is deportation (Russia has been deporting evangelical missionaries like clockwork ever since the fall of the USSR). Indeed, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China is being especially careful to show its best face to the world.

The risk runs deeper, though. Perhaps they will run afoul of local authorities and be jailed not for proselytizing or whatver that law is, but for something entirely different -- say, they collect donations, and are charged with embezzlement on trumped-up evidence. Worst case scenario might be making some tenuous connection to a group viewed as subversive, such as Falun Gong or democracy activists, and bieng charged with espionage. This could be very serious. Or they could be in the middle of another EP-3 incident, or a blow-up over Taiwan. Whatever one can say of the Chinese system of justice, it is not known for its ... flexibility.

I think that your friends should prepare for this trip as for no other. They need to have local contacts, Beijing contacts, State Department contacts. They should get advice from someone who has done this before. They should, perhaps, have a lawyer they can call, both in the US and China.
posted by dhartung at 10:38 PM on January 3, 2005

Response by poster: you should assume that the Chinese Central Committee for Anti-Christian Activities reads metafilter
Yeah, I'm trying to generalize here.

China is being especially careful to show its best face to the world.
It seems to me that the last thing China needs is bad press.
posted by BradNelson at 11:55 PM on January 3, 2005

Remember this guy?
posted by C.Batt at 1:41 AM on January 4, 2005

Be careful not to think that because an act is internationally considered reasonable or moral, that that will affect the judgement of a country where that act is considered illegal or immoral.

One example is that, in most European countries, you can legally have sex with a 16 year old, but if a European were to try that in the US, you can beat they wouldn't be getting any special treatment!
posted by wackybrit at 2:29 AM on January 4, 2005

China doesn't give a shit about bad press.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:43 AM on January 4, 2005

Brad in the future, don't generalize - lie. And don't indictate you've lied. Say "Western Province" and "Math Teachers" instead of telling us the truth.
posted by Ryvar at 5:30 AM on January 4, 2005

Does it not seem like a great deal of trouble can be avoided simply by not attempting to impose one's religion on others?
posted by sageleaf at 6:01 AM on January 4, 2005

"In the past, protesters detained for engaging in pro-Falun Gong activities have been quickly deported from China after being questioned. Several of these protesters alleged they were physically abused during their detention. ... Several Americans have been detained and expelled for passing out non-authorized Christian literature. Sentences for distributing this material may range from three to five years imprisonment, if convicted."
posted by profwhat at 6:14 AM on January 4, 2005

I'm with Sageleaf on this one.

Your friends could just choose to let other people alone and not try to "fix" them by convincing them to join a different religon. Especially in a country that does not welcome them and which specifically prohibits their intended actions.

Americans wouldn't look kindly on foreigners conspiring to enter their country under false pretenses to break American laws and I don't see why this should be any different.
posted by bshort at 7:20 AM on January 4, 2005

It just seems like such an innocuous crime, compared to theft and such.

Indeed, just like consensual prostitution and recreational soft drug among adults are also pretty lame and still can get you hard jail time in the "home of the free" (or something). And let's not even get into the medicinal marihuana issue (which in a sense is closer to what your friends want to do - help people alleviate their sufferings).

There seems to be plenty to be fixed at home before going round the world preaching - just an idea.
posted by magullo at 8:32 AM on January 4, 2005

I was at University with a chap called James Mawdsley who (intentionally) got himself into a whole heap of trouble in Burma agitating for democratic reform.

While he succeeded in having himself arrested and sentenced for 17 years the British Foreign Office arranged for his release. This was by no means a forgone conclusion and in today's political climate would potentially not be possible.

Obviously China is a completely different kettle of fish to Burma but the possibility of lengthy imprisonment for activities which in the West would (today) be considered innocuous should be considered by your friends as a very real possibility.
Sageleaf's comment also seems, well, sage.
posted by dmt at 8:35 AM on January 4, 2005

Response by poster: Well, this has certainly gone where I didn't expect it to. Thanks for the patronizing comments, sageleaf and bshort.

My question was a hypothetical about missionaries, based on a family which are not missionaries. And I've only heard of this family through a third/fourth party.
posted by BradNelson at 9:18 AM on January 4, 2005

Christian missionaries in China

btw, if you allow a little joke, American missionaires in China have a shady history at best
not to mention your wording of "a less-than-free foreign country" was a bit unfortunate in 2005. I mean, some of those "less than free" infidels do not actually fingerprint all foreign visitors who have a regular visa, so it's all relative I guess.
and... pssst.. after Gitmo/Abu Ghraib, freedom versus treatment of foreigners and personal rights can become a rather thorny topic

posted by matteo at 10:00 AM on January 4, 2005

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