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Execution raises legal fears for Americans abroad

American prisoner
One of 60 Americans currently jailed in Thailand   
April 16, 1998
Web posted at: 12:44 a.m. EDT (0444 GMT)

MEXICO CITY (CNN) -- Tuesday's execution of a Paraguayan national for murder in Virginia has raised concerns about how Americans who face criminal charges abroad might be treated in the future.

About 3,000 U.S. citizens are arrested or detained worldwide each year, and the State Department says about half wind up serving long prison sentences.

Under an international treaty called the Vienna Convention, U.S. diplomats are entitled to have contact with arrested Americans and offer them advice and help. Paraguayan officials have complained that in the case of Angel Francisco Breard, U.S. officials didn't comply with the treaty.

Kip Lavenger   

Kip Lavenger, who served 16 months in a Japanese prison on a drug conviction, says he feels the help offered under the Vienna Convention is important, even though he had already confessed before he saw an embassy official.

"I would have just completely broken down with the idea that I had no one as an advocate, no one on my side, no friend -- which is how they wanted me to feel," Lavenger said.

Far and away, more Americans are jailed in Mexico than in any other country, about 400 at current count. More than 20 million Americans visit Mexico each year, and 600,000 are permanent residents.

vxtreme CNN's Carl Rochelle reports on the treatment of people accused of crimes while traveling abroad

Rafael Heredia, a Mexican lawyer who works closely with the U.S. embassy, says Americans in legal trouble in Mexico do get the help they need.

"I believe they do get nice treatment, even a little better than the Mexican citizens," he said.

In contrast, many Mexicans think their nationals are mistreated in the United States, where two have been executed in the past year and more than 30 are on death row.

"Of the 39 cases of Mexicans sentenced to death in the United States, in every single case, our consular offices were not advised, in contravention of the Vienna Convention," said Ruben Beltran of the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

American officials insist that Mexican nationals charged with crimes on U.S. soil receive the same impartial treatment, including respect for their civil liberties, that any U.S. citizen would receive under the same circumstances.

But the U.S. State Department was so concerned about the possible fallout from Breard's execution that an appeal for a delay was made to Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Gilmore declined to stop the execution.

Now, some international legal experts believe that Americans who find themselves in trouble in a strange land might face new problems.

"Many of them, if not all of them, will not be able to get in contact with the consular office or with the embassy," says Richard Atkins, a scholar in international law. "Their families won't know what happened to them. They'll be stuck inside sometimes hellhole prisons."

Billy Hayes
Billy Hayes   

Billy Hayes, whose time in Turkish prisons on drug charges was the basis for the movie "Midnight Express," told CNN that he also fears what consequences Americans might face if other countries view the United States as ignoring the Vienna Convention.

"If we do it, other people will do it with impunity. Why not? And the people who take the brunt of that are Americans who are arrested for a variety of reasons or fall into the wrong hands in foreign countries," Hayes said.

But though they might face prison, U.S. nationals are unlikely to face execution. Most countries Americans are likely to visit, including Mexico, don't have the death penalty. And it is believed that only one American -- a man accused of killing his wife in Antigua -- faces the possibility of execution.

Mexico City Bureau Chief Chris Kline and Correspondent Carl Rochelle contributed to this report.


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