Concern for US inmates abroad

Peru is considering retrial of Lori Berenson. Her case raised questions about justice in Latin America.

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Sheren Alexander doesn't dispute the charge that her husband broke the law.

But the New Jersey mother, whose husband, Andrew, has sat in a Panama jail for five months awaiting trial on drug-possession charges, says she doesn't think he should face worse conditions simply because he is American.

And Mrs. Alexander says the US government should do more to help her husband and other Americans in the same Panamanian prison. "It's like they've been thrown to the dogs," she says, "and no one from the American embassy down there seems to care to do anything about it."

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Americans may face inhumane prison conditions and corrupt courts elsewhere in the world, but more Americans are incarcerated in Latin America than in any other region outside the United States.

Over the past decade, the number of Americans incarcerated abroad averaged about 2,500 a year, according to State Department consular officials in Washington. And although they refuse to divulge regional breakdowns, officials acknowledge that the Western Hemisphere - which includes Canada and Latin America - is the region with the most US citizens jailed abroad.

With 616 Americans known incarcerated as of Sept. 30, Mexico alone had almost one-quarter of the global total. Its busy 3,000-mile border, the drug trade, and frequent infractions by Americans of tough firearms laws are all factors in Mexico's high spot on the list.

The sometimes harrowing conditions Americans face in foreign jails won public attention in the 1978 movie "Midnight Express," based on the experiences of Billy Hayes in a Turkish prison.

A string of events is placing new focus on the hundreds of Americans being held or serving time from Mexico to Argentina. From the expected retrial in Peru of Lori Berenson, whose 1996 conviction by a military court on charges of treason and terrorism was annulled in August, to the recent beating death of an American in a Mexican border jail, several cases point to varying standards of justice.

Some reflect apparent progress. A Costa Rican court last week handed American Daniel Webster Hovis a four-year sentence for sexual abuse involving children. Mr. Hovis is a fugitive from North Carolina, where he is wanted on similar charges. His conviction comes in the wake of international criticism that Costa Rica was becoming a haven for child sex offenders.

Other cases are more controversial. Last September, James Willis Abell was arrested in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in possession of a drug used to treat mental illness. In jail, Mr. Abell became agitated and was beaten by four prisoners and a guard and left lying unconscious for hours. He later died. The prisoners are being charged in his death; the guard is in hiding.

A few cases, like Ms. Berenson's, achieve celebrity status. On Tuesday, a Peruvian state prosecutor recommended that she be formally charged with "terrorist collaboration" and retried in civilian court. A decision by Peru's Superior Court could come next week. In the meantime, she has a Web page dedicated to her defense, and her lawyer is former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

In hundreds of less well-known cases, Americans who may or may not have committed the offenses they are charged with are finding they can't count on the same standards they enjoyed at home. When Americans leave US soil, "the legal protections afforded them in the United States don't cross the border with them," says Stephen Morisseau, spokesman for the American Embassy in Mexico City. "If you're in Mexico, you are subject to Mexican law."

The drug trade is a primary reason so many Americans are jailed across Latin America - as exemplified by Andrew Alexander's case.

Alexander, a food-services manager from Trenton, N.J., with seven years' past Army experience in Panama, was arrested in Panama City's airport on Aug. 18 with a cigarette-pack-sized supply of cocaine. Since then, he has languished in a Panama City jail, where his wife says he must sleep on a concrete floor, often receives only bread and cheese to eat, and has access to running water once every three days.

What's more, according to Mrs. Alexander, foreigners in the prison are treated worse than Panamanians. "The Panamanians know the system, they have someone there to come pay the guards off to get them better treatment or move them to a better prison," she says. "Everything is money and bribes, but if you're foreign - and the darker your skin - the worse your treatment." The Alexanders are African-American.

Alexander says the worst affront for her is the poor attention her husband and other incarcerated Americans get from US officials in Panama. Consular officials only visit once every three months, she says, and have done nothing to pressure Panamanian officials to guarantee minimum living standards for prisoners. "It seems like all they want to do is defend the Panamanian system," she says.

Officials at the US Embassy in Panama acknowledge that after an initial contact, the consulate's goal is to visit an imprisoned American once a quarter - which is standard consular practice. They declined to make further comment on the Alexander case, saying informed officials were away. US officials emphasize that in any case, it is not the government's job to act as a legal advocate for incarcerated Americans, although the government does provide them with a list of local attorneys to contact. Alexander, for example, has a Panamanian attorney and was recently informed he has a February court date.

US officials insist, moreover, that the American government is a strong critic of conditions in prisons across Latin America. This is done through the State Department's annual reports on human rights - which cite a number of countries, including Mexico, for corruption, danger, and inhumane conditions in prisons - or through regular embassy-government contacts.

Alexander says she doesn't see it. "What I see are Americans sleeping on the floor for weeks, having the little decent food their families can get to them taken by the guards, and being shoved around, insulted, and worse. And none of that seems to bother our government."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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