What Do You Do When Your Loved One is Wrongfully Detained Abroad?

By Elizabeth R. Whelan

Sister of Paul Whelan, an American wrongfully detained in Russia since December 28, 2018.

The shock is unlike any other; your loved one is in a foreign prison on false charges, and your world falls apart. What should you do first? Who do you call?

The State Department may already be in touch with you if the country holding your loved one has diplomatic relations with the US. If you have not heard from the State Department or an Embassy, this is where you will start.

The first step is to ensure that the State Department knows that your loved one is in trouble and where they are.

Visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/emergencies/arrest-detention.html, then find the Search box that says ‘Learn about your destination’ and search for the country in question. This search will take you to a page containing travel alerts and phone numbers for the appropriate State Department Embassy or section based on your loved one’s location.

When you make contact, get the name and phone number of someone you can call later to follow up. And keep a notebook to record notes about all the calls and meetings you are likely to have in the days and weeks to come.

What Facts Do You Have Right Now?

No matter how you got the news of your loved one’s detention, you will need to separate facts from speculation immediately. 

You may find that there is already media interest in their story. If this is the case, it is possible that the media stories are not accurate and may contain sensational information, especially if they emanate from the country holding your family member.

You will need to contact US government officials beyond the State Department and tell them what is happening; it is essential to stick to the facts.

In your notebook, list what you know about the detention so that you can easily refer to facts during a call:

  • The purpose of your loved one’s visit to the foreign country (such as pleasure or business).
  • Their activities on the trip – did you communicate with them during their travels?
  • Any facts you have about the detention. These might include the date and time of the arrest, the charges, the arresting authority, and the location.
  • The US or government officials with whom you have had contact.
  • If you have spoken to your loved one after their arrest, note what they could tell you about the situation.
  • Also, list essential facts about your loved one:
    • Their full name and age
    • City and state of residence
    • Employer, if known

When talking to officials of either country, media, friends, or family outside of your closest circle, do not engage in speculation or repeat speculative statements. Just stick to what you know to be true.

Contact Members of Congress

It is essential to contact your Members of Congress (Representatives and Senators). Call their DC offices and ask to speak to the Member or someone on their staff. When you have the opportunity to talk to someone, share with them the facts you wrote in your notebook and ask for their help.

These links can help you look up their contact information based on where you live:

Don’t Give In to the Drama

‘Don’t give in to the drama’ was the best advice given to us in the early days of my brother’s wrongful detention. At that time, we were overwhelmed and unsure of where to turn. It was difficult to eat or sleep, and we felt guilty about creature comforts like a soft bed and good food when we knew my brother was being kept in isolation and mistreated. It would have been easy to cycle into an unhelpful state of misery and anxiety.

It was important to remember that every moment wasted on drama would be time lost. Instead, we focused on the goal: to get my brother home.

You may not have other family members available to help, or family relations may not make this feasible. However, it is helpful to have the ear of a couple of sensible people with whom you can discuss options. If family members are not the solution, it is likely that as you begin to make connections, you will find others who can advise you in this manner, such as non-governmental groups like the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, Hostage US, and the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, among others.

Start Counting the Days — Literally

You probably know exactly how many days the foreign country has been holding your loved one, but start keeping an official count.

Use this information in your emails, phone calls, statements to media, and in the subject line of emails to Congress and the State Department. Never stop reminding people just how long your family member has been wrongfully detained.

When it became clear that Paul would not get released quickly, our family made a website with a counter which automatically updates every 24 hours.

Manage People Who Want to Help

Friends and family are likely to contact you with offers to help in some manner, and it can be daunting to know what to ask them to do. Useful early tasks for them to undertake initially include:

  • Writing letters and making calls on your behalf to Members of Congress
  • Raising funds through a GoFundMe or similar campaign

You Are Not In This Alone

Although you may feel very alone right now, others have walked this path before you and can offer words of advice. Each wrongful detention is different, but the goal is shared. You may get ideas from reading articles online about wrongfully detained US citizens, and your Members of Congress may be able to connect you with those who have experience in these matters.

And there are many ways to get in touch with other families experiencing this by reaching out to non-governmental groups working to support Americans held abroad that I referenced above.

To learn more about Paul Whelan’s case and his family’s fight to bring him home, visit www.freepaulwhelan.com.