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How to Train Travelers for Wrongful Detention Risks

WNBA All-Star basketball player Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February 2022 on drug-related charges. In May 2022, the U.S. State Department declared that Griner had been wrongfully detained by the Russian government. Nearly 10 months after her initial arrest—a period of high-profile media attention, multiple extensions of detention, a court case, a presidential executive order, a sentence of nine years in prison, and fierce negotiations between Russia and the United States—the United States released Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (who was in U.S. custody under terrorism financing charges) in December 2022 in exchange for Griner’s safe return.

Following the start of this case, the U.S. State Department added an official ninth category to its list of specific traveler safety indicators—“D,” for wrongful detention. This puts wrongful detention on the same list of risks as widespread crime, kidnapping, political instability, terrorism, and health crises.

Eight countries are currently tagged with the “D” indicator: Burma, the People’s Republic of China, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.

“We work directly with experts to review many sources of information about the risk of wrongful detention,” a State Department spokesperson told Security Management. “That includes personnel at our consulates and embassies abroad, U.S. government security and intelligence experts, other federal government agencies, and other governments. A significant data point in this assessment is whether the Secretary [of State] has determined a detention to be wrongful in that country. In our travel advisories, we clearly explain the reason for the travel advisory level and describe all relevant safety and security concerns.”

For example, the travel advisory for Russia—as of July 2023—cited risks of terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping or hostage taking, wrongful detention, and other threats. “Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia for detention and harassment, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and convicted them in secret trials or without presenting credible evidence,” the advisory said.

Evan Gershkovich, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, was arrested in Russia in March 2023 during a reporting trip and faces unsubstantiated charges of espionage. While the Kremlin says the reporter was caught “red-handed,” the government has provided no evidence to that effect. The U.S. State department designated Gershkovich in April 2023 as wrongfully detained.  

The designation is rare (the vast majority of U.S. citizen detentions internationally are due to legitimate legal troubles, not political ones) and it relies on 11 criteria outlined in the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which was passed in 2020. Those criteria include:

  • United States officials have received or possess credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual;
  • The individual is being detained solely or substantially because he or she is a U.S. national;
  • The individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence U.S. government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the United States;
  • The detention appears to be because the individual sought to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote freedom of the press, freedom of religion, or the right to peacefully assemble;
  • The individual is being detained in violation of the laws of the detaining country;
  • Independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or journalists have raised legitimate questions about the innocence of the detained individual;
  • The U.S. mission in the country where the individual is being detained has received credible reports that the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose;
  • The individual is detained in a country where the Department of State has determined in its annual human rights reports that the judicial system is not independent or impartial, is susceptible to corruption, or is incapable of rendering just verdicts;
  • The individual is being detained in inhumane conditions;
  • Due process of law has been sufficiently impaired so as to render the detention arbitrary; and
  • U.S. diplomatic engagement is likely necessary to secure the release of the detained individual.

Wrongful detentions are rare, but they are on the rise. At least 153 Americans have been wrongfully detained by state actors since 2001, according to a 2022 report from the James Foley Foundation. But over the last decade the number of wrongfully detained U.S. nationals abroad increased 175 percent. Between 2001 to 2011, around five U.S. citizens were held hostage or wrongfully detained each year. Since 2012, that number grew to an average of 34 per year.

Detentions are more likely between nations in the same region that have complex geopolitical ties and motivations, says Paul Doucet, regional director of security intelligence and assistance for International SOS. In his prior role, he served in Dubai as the regional security information manager for the Middle East and Eastern and Southern Africa. Big-picture geopolitics can drive detentions across borders, he notes, such as when tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia spill over into the territory of nearby allies that are being propped up by these power brokers (Syria or Yemen, for example). This can lead to increased suspicion and more use of political detentions to influence action.

But the reasons behind a wrongful detention are often murky and multilayered, which makes assessing and responding to such incidents complicated. A kidnap for ransom case is very different: the motivation is likely criminal, ideological, or financial, and the situation can be much more volatile and violent, says Randy Spivey, CEO and founder of the Center for Personal Protection Safety (CPPS). Wrongful government detention is generally an attempt to exploit a detainee to get something, whether information, to embarrass the traveler’s country of origin, to wrest concessions from a foreign power, or to negotiate a prisoner release.

These methods can be very effective, Spivey says—that’s why governments keep doing it.

With that in mind, wrongful detention risks require different behavior and preparedness from travelers, and that’s where training can come into play.

Building an Effective Training Program

Business travelers bring their “hurts, hang-ups, and addictions” with them while they travel, and this is usually what lands them in hot water with local governments or law enforcement authorities, says Dave Benson, senior advisor for threat mitigation and global operations with CPPS. These do not need to be illicit behaviors, such as drug use, but they can instead be seemingly innocuous behavior that carries heavier weight in the host country.

In one somber example, American university student Otto Warmbier was accused of trying to take an item bearing a state propaganda slogan from his hotel, ostensibly as a souvenir of his visit. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor; he died shortly after being returned to the United States in a coma 17 months later.

Risky behavior can be that innocuous—things a traveler wouldn’t think twice about doing at home but that put them at risk in other countries, such as snapping a picture of a neat-looking building that happens to be a government or military office or talking in public on the phone about the traveler’s opinions of the host country’s policies.

“This is more likely in authoritarian regimes that have strong censorship and control over communication methods,” Doucet says. “They will engage in this kind of actual monitoring of telephone conversations or text messages that are going out using their infrastructure. So, while you’re visiting, you’re using their national infrastructure for your communications—that is sometimes what gets people into trouble.”  

“The reality is that it does not have to be a high-profile, highly politically charged episode,” says Benson, who has extensive travel risk management experience from his former role as director of the law enforcement academy for the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. “You don't have to do anything wrong to run afoul of this. I think it’s important to talk about what are some of the pitfalls, specifically, for where you go in the world. Each region is a little different; each country is different.”

The reality is that it does not have to be a high-profile, highly politically charged episode.

Benson and Spivey advocate for building out an effective training and pre-travel awareness program that accounts for wrongful detention—sharing information about potentially dangerous behavior, establishing traveler monitoring or check-in protocols, teaching travelers about what to do to avoid detention, and what to do if actually arrested. Employers also need to have plans in place to guide them on how to connect with home government departments and resources as well as the traveler’s family in the event of detention.

This is not a light lift, Doucet warns. Security training initiatives are already a challenge to deliver in a way that resonates with each recipient, and adding in the complexity of unique destinations’ risks could make one-and-done presentations too nebulous to be worthwhile. Organizations will need to customize training and security briefings for employees traveling to high-risk areas to ensure they understand the gravity of the situation.

“Prevention is the best cure,” Doucet says. “We focus a lot on that and try to get organizations to undertake strategies to minimize the possibility that this will happen to travelers with they go into a country with a real possibility of wrongful detention.”

Part of the training customization will relate to the destination. “The common denominator is proletariat regimes, where their press and their populace are very secretive, very suppressed, and they are dealing with foreign individuals are bargaining chips and leverage,” Benson says. “I think what’s different now is that we’re seeing a resurgence of this behavior in other parts of the developed world. Normally, when you have a detention situation, you have government conventions or bilateral agreements that are governing these things.”

However, in the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Gershkovich, the U.S. embassy has been allowed very limited contact with him, against the general protocols outlined in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which demands consular access be granted within 72 hours. “Clearly, the lines are becoming blurred,” Benson adds.

Travel security briefings will also need to address the traveler’s unique risk factors—and how those fit into the destination country’s risk landscape. For instance, LGBTQ+ travelers, employees with former government ties (especially to military or spy agencies), and even employees with vast amounts of publicly available information on social media can be at higher risk for unwanted attention abroad, Doucet says.

Dual citizenship can also backfire on travelers. In 2022, the U.S. State Department warned dual Russian-U.S. citizens that traveling to Russia could put them at risk of conscription to fight in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Dual nationals traveling in Iran or Afghanistan are often treated as solely Iranian or Afghan citizens, and officials refuse to contact a foreign embassy on their behalf, Doucet says. Dual Iranian-British citizen and charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in Iran in 2016 on spying charges while she was visiting family. After a six-year ordeal, she and another dual UK-Iran citizen were released after British officials resolved a longstanding €400 million ($522 million) debt with the country.

The materials a person brings on their travels could also put them at risk. Consider what someone would think of you if they looked through your purse or wallet while traveling, Benson says.

“I’m a retired federal agent; I probably don’t want to have my retired federal agent badge on my person if I’m detained in a foreign government,” he says. “Business cards that say you are doing something that could be national security related, even though it’s innocent, could be construed as being espionage related. Packing medication that is not readily identifiable can get you detained because they think you’re carrying contraband. When in doubt, find out what’s sensitive, and then if you don’t have to, don’t bring it.”

Consider what materials or devices could be illegal in that country—such as cannabis oil in Russia or publications or artwork that could be considered blasphemous to a religious authority. Or in some countries, encryption is illegal, so possessing a work computer with encrypted files could place a traveler at risk.

As in most cases, traveling with the least amount of intellectual property necessary is ideal, and depending on the destination, travelers might be advised to always keep electronic devices and documents on their person, rather than locking them away in the hotel safe, Doucet says.

Counterintuitive Advice

“If you are detained, the motivations of the detainer matter,” Spivey says. “If it’s politically driven, they really don’t care that much about what the truth is. They’re using you as leverage.”

Those motivations can be difficult to parse, though, especially when the detainee is in such a stressful and unfamiliar situation. But if a customs interrogation is taking an hour or more, alarm bells should be ringing, he adds.

Unlike in a kidnapping case, where the guidance is generally to stay calm, keep talking, humanize yourself, and make a connection with your captor to make it emotionally harder for them to harm you, in a government detention the detainee should respectfully provide the bare bones of information: a short elevator speech or paragraph explaining who you are, why you are in the country, your desire to be released from custody, and—barring that—your request for government representation, Spivey says.

“Even though they may not like that answer, the more that you’re able to only talk about that, the less likely you are to be exploited or say things that wind up actually getting you in more trouble,” he adds.

This is difficult for many travelers, who want to explain how this is all a big mistake and walk the detainer through every circumstance and action up until that moment. Don’t embellish, don’t elaborate, don’t sign any documents from the detainer or confess to things, Benson advises.

If you are detained, the motivations of the detainer matter.

At the end of the day, this will be an issue between governments. The role of the detainee is not to make things more complicated for those on the outside, Spivey says. The traveler will have very little control over his or her circumstances—the only thing detainees can control is themselves and their emotions.

“One of the tactics that we’ve seen in the past as a common one is they accuse you of espionage or you’re collecting intelligence for the U.S. government,” Spivey says. “It’s not because they believe the accusation—they’re doing it to try and get you on the defensive and start explaining away and doing things because you’re scared or you lost your composure. You don’t want to do that. There are things you can do that actually wind up breaking the law while you’re detained, or you confess to things inadvertently that you never meant to, and it can make it more difficult for those on the outside who are trying to negotiate and see how we’re going to get you out of this circumstance.”

Instead, aim to calmly inform your home government of the situation. Hopefully travelers have already registered their travel plans with their government’s consular function (the U.S. State Department has the STEP Program for this), which helps give officials a head-start. Employers should also ideally be using some form of traveler monitoring system to check in regularly and detect when a traveler is unusually out of reach.

“The people that get into the most trouble are the ones that have not notified anybody,” Benson says. “They’re doing it on their own. The next thing, they disappear, and no one can account for what’s happened to them. You cannot rely on the host government to efficiently and quickly notify your embassy that they have you.”

When consular officials are allowed to see the detainee, focus on health and welfare. U.S. embassies cannot offer a get-out-of-jail-free card, but they can advocate strongly for support, healthcare, and reasonable wellness. They can also connect detainees with legal representatives and can share information with the detainee’s employer, family, and media provided the detainee signs a privacy form.

Employers’ sway in this situation will vary dramatically depending on the company’s political weight, national value, or investment in the destination country, Doucet says. “It may be enough to buy some leverage, but there is almost always going to be a need to liaise with embassy officials and other diplomatic resources,” he adds.

In addition, prepare travelers for a potentially drawn-out process.

“Negotiations can move slowly on a good day,” Benson says. “These processes—government to government and agency to government—can be very tenuous.”

“Please, try to be patient, because it could very well be a long haul,” he cautions.

Duty of Care

Organizations that send employees into high-risk environments without adequate training also face serious liability risks, Doucet notes.

“If the risk of extrajudicial detention is reasonably foreseeable or can be argued to be reasonably foreseeable and the company has not done at least some level of preparation—whether it be training or putting actual mitigation measures in place—and someone can argue that negligence led to the detention, then a lawsuit could follow from that. There’s a very clear logic and argumentation for that liability risk,” he explains.

Benson and Spivey recommend that organizations address wrongful detentions like they do workplace violence prevention—focusing on a three-pronged model of readiness, response, and recovery.

“How do you train people to recognize warning signs, and how do you prevent it from happening,” Spivey asks. “In this case, how do you not get detained, and what do you do if it does happen? Then, how do you recover as an organization from it?”

“Why the detention happened can be really opaque,” Doucet adds. “When we’re dealing with these countries that are quite authoritarian and not going to divulge information very openly, that opacity can really be the greatest challenge—not knowing why there’s a detention can really impact the strategies you might engage in to get the person released.”

Claire Meyer is managing editor for Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her directly at [email protected].