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10 Lesser-Known Americans Currently Detained in Non-U.S. Prisons

by Blake Lynch
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The recent release of Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony on the morning of December 8, 2022, was hailed by some and criticized by others. The same day, Sarah Krivanek, a U.S. citizen ordered deported by a Russian court due to a domestic dispute, left Russia too. Unlike Griner, though, Krivanek was not a part of a prisoner swap that saw Griner exchanged for Viktor Bout, on whom the 2005 Nicholas Cage film Lord of War is based. Many people are also aware of a third prisoner, Paul Whelan, a former Marine and corporate executive who was convicted of espionage and, as a result, is serving a 16-year sentence.

What many people don’t know is that these three people are a small group of the many other people currently detained in non-U.S. prisons. This article lists just 10 of these individuals, but there are many more.

Related: 10 Horrifying Stories From Communist Prisons And Labor Camps

10 Airan Barry and Luke Denman (Venezuela)

How Ex-US Army Green Berets Were Lured Into A Disastrous Failed Coup In Venezuela

In August 2020, a Venezuelan court sentenced Airan Berry and Luke Denman, two former U.S. Army Special Forces members, to 20 years in prison after the two men attempted to help overthrow President Maduro. The two men were convicted of conspiracy charges, illegal arms trafficking, and terrorism. Both men admitted to participating in Operation Gideon, an unsuccessful attempt to remove Maduro from office. It was part of a plan organized by Silvercorp USA, a private security firm based in Florida. Operation Gideon led to the death of at least eight soldiers and the jailing of another 66 individuals.

Both Berry and Denman were arrested in the fishing village of Chuao. The two men were represented by a public defender after the lawyers hired to represent them were not told about their hearing. The two men were then used by the Venezuelan media to suggest that the United States wanted to overthrow Venezuela’s government. The United States denied any participation in the alleged coup.[1]

9 Majd Kamalmaz (Syria)

Virginia grandfather of 13 still missing in Syria for nearly 900 days

In 2017, Majd Kamalmaz disappeared on a trip to Syria and is believed to have been placed in a Syrian jail. The 63-year-old with diabetes, who is also an American citizen and psychotherapist, arrived in Damascus on February 15, 2017. From this point, Kamalmaz traveled to Syria’s capital after the death of his father-in-law to inquire about elderly relatives. Kamalmaz is believed to have been arrested at a checkpoint on February 16, 2017. Family members have expressed wonderment over why the man was arrested because he is not involved in politics. The family has also worked with the State Department to try to find Kamalmaz and help get him released from prison.

A Czech ambassador later confirmed that Kamalmaz was held because he was seen as a symbol of U.S. interest in Syria after civil war erupted in the country. While the trail has gone cold about Kamalmaz, he is still believed to be alive. Kamalmaz is a humanitarian interested in international disaster relief and worked in Kosovo as well as Indonesia after the tsunami in 2004. In 2012, Kamalmaz became concerned about the growing conflict in Syria and helped various refugees by opening two mental health clinics in Lebanon and Jordan.[2]


8 David Lin (China)

Photo credit: Bitter Winter

David Lin is a pastor who has been detained in China since 2006. U.S. efforts to have Lin released finally achieved results in 2022 following a meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali. This meeting saw the reduction of Lin’s life imprisonment—lowered to 24 years. This means that Lin will be released from prison in 2030. It remains uncertain if Lin will be able to survive until this date, though. Since 2018, Lin has been in poor health.

David Lin served as an economist who advised California and Iowa state officials. Lin’s wife was a Christian, who persuaded Lin to pursue the religion. In the 1990s, Lin began taking trips to China to promote Christianity and help local churches. Lin later registered as a Christian minister in 1999. In 2006, Lin was stopped by law enforcement and placed under house arrest for having illegal religious propaganda. Months later, Lin was arrested formally.

Lin was charged with “contract fraud” as well for helping Chinese nationals enter into contracts for premises designed for non-authorized church usage. A few years later, Lin received a life imprisonment sentence. Lin later stated that he viewed his imprisonment as a mission from God and a chance to promote religion to his fellow inmates. In 2018, however, Lin sent his loved ones in the United States his bible, his prized possession. Lin later urged his loved ones to request his release because he was in bad health and not receiving adequate care while in jail.[3]

7 Kai Li (China)

Son urges for help for father detained in China

Kai Li, an American citizen, was detained in China in 2017 following an espionage conviction. In the summer of 2016, Li transported his son from their home in New York to Harvard University before traveling to Shanghai. Kai Li, who was born in Shanghai, returned to the city for a ceremony commemorating his mother’s death. When the plane landed, Li was met by security agents. In 2018, Li was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for espionage. The Li family argues that these charges are politically motivated. The case involves state secrets that Li and his lawyer claim are freely available online.

Born in 1962, Li later moved to America to study and then became a U.S. citizen. Li opened two gas stations on Long Island and also acted as a buyer and distributor of solar cell technology for U.S. aerospace firms. During these years, Li visited China several times a year.[4]


6 Paul Overby (Afghanistan)

Photo credit: Boston Globe

Paul E. Overby Jr. is a 79-year-old writer from Massachusetts who was abducted in May 2014 in the eastern Khost province of Afghanistan. At the time he was kidnapping, Overby was headed to interview the head of the Haqqani network, an infamous Taliban network. Before disappearing, Overby suggested that he planned to cross into Pakistan.

Overby was in the country at the time to write a book about the war in Afghanistan. Additionally, Overby is reported to have had health issues that require medical care. In the 1980s, Overby fought beside Afghans against Soviet forces. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has offered a $1 million award for information leading to the return of Overby.[5]

5 Mark Swidan (China)

As US works to bring Griner home, a Luling mother has been missing her son for 10 years | KVUE

In 2012, Mark Swidan was arrested and imprisoned in a Chinese detention center. Swidan was accused of being part of a drug conspiracy while in China for business; he was sentenced to death. Swidan’s mother says he was wrongfully convicted, and she fears she may never see her son again. She has not spoken to him since 2018.

The United Nations Human Rights Council and other human rights organizations have requested Swidan’s release. Despite these requests, Swidan remains in prison. While in prison, Swidan is reported to have little food and to be experiencing deteriorating health; he has reportedly lost about 100 pounds (45 kilograms). Swidan’s mother is heading efforts to get him released and has even started a GoFundMe campaign, so Swidan has money to buy necessaries at the commissary.[6]


4 Austin Tice (Syria)

Parents of Austin Tice, journalist kidnapped in Syria, on the fight to bring him home

Journalist Austin Tice is a 41-year-old man who went missing in Syria in 2012. The last that anyone in the United States heard from Tice was a video released the same year. Tice disappeared in Syria in 2012, at which time he was covering the Syrian civil war. In 2018, Tice’s parents commented that they have new details that lead them to believe Tice is still alive.

In addition to being a journalist who contributed to The Washington Post, McClatchy, and CBS, Tice is also a Marine veteran and an Eagle Scout. Those who have sought details about Tice in recent years have not found any information. President Joe Biden has referred to Tice as a “journalist who put the truth above himself.” Tice’s parents continue to push the administration to secure TIce’s release.[7]

3 Marc Fogel (Russia)

‘A death sentence’: American teacher sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony

Marc Fogel is a 61-year-old U.S. citizen and teacher who was arrested after he entered Russia at the Sheremetyevo Airport in 2021 while in possession of medical marijuana. Fogel was carrying less than 20 grams of cannabis at the time of his arrest. The drug was prescribed to Fogel in Pennsylvania for medical purposes.

Fogel has taught history at various high schools in countries like Venezuela, Oman, Colombia, and Malaysia. At the time of his arrest, Fogel was working at the Anglo-American School, which is located in Moscow. The school is an elite private school tasked with teaching the children of international political figures and American diplomats. Fogel also has a history of chronic pain in his spine and was correspondingly prescribed marijuana by his medical doctor.

Fogel was subsequently sentenced to a 14-year prison sentence in a Russian penal colony on the charge of large-scale drug trafficking. Fogel’s sentence was later reduced to nine years. Fogel is reportedly not receiving adequate medical attention while in prison.[8]


2 Emad Shargi (Iran)

Family of Emad Shargi, American held in Iran, urges Biden to do more to secure release

Emad Shargi is an Iranian-American businessman who was arrested in Iran in 2020. Shargi has since been sentenced to a decade of imprisonment as a result of a trial that Shargi did not even attend. Shargi was arrested on espionage charges, which Iran often brings against dual-citizenship holders and foreign nationals. Shargi was first detained in 2018, though. Later released on bail, Shargi was still not allowed to leave the country. He was re-arrested in 2020.

Shargi’s family has expressed worries about his mental state and begged the United States to secure his release. During his time in the infamous Evin prison, Shargi has been allowed to make brief phone calls to his family.[9]

1 Shahab Dalili (Iran)

Free Shahab Dalili, American hostage in Iran | Pod Hostage Diplomacy

Shahab Dalili is a 59-year-old man who was arrested and later imprisoned while in Tehran in 2016 for his father’s funeral. Dalili’s family had recently immigrated to the United States and chose to settle in Virginia at the time Dalili was arrested. Dalili is a legal United States resident with a green card but not a citizen. Dalili has been charged with “aiding and abetting” the United States. For several years following his imprisonment, Dalili’s wife chose not to speak about his arrest out of fear that it might jeopardize his release.

Under the Levinson Act, which was passed in 2020, the United States government must work with both U.S. citizens as well as green card holders who are viewed as “United States nationals.” As a result of this law, the United States has more power to get someone like Dalili out of prison. Further helping matters are two of Dalili’s former cellmates who were released in 2019 and have requested that President Biden not agree to any deal with Iran without securing Dalili’s freedom. One of these men was a United States citizen who was arrested while performing research in Iran as a graduate student at Princeton University.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

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