Last Updated on May 10, 2022 by Allard John Keeley
Nobody wants to get arrested, but where are the worst places to get arrested?
The United States
Israel / Palestine
The Worst Places to Get Arrested Abroad
Every so often we hear horror stories about tourists being thrown into a foreign prison for years, often for smuggling drugs. These countries are the countries where you absolutely do not want to get arrested.
12. The United States
Prison [Public Domain]
More Canadians travel to the US than any other country, and though our neighbour to the south has laws mostly very similar to ours, don’t let that convince you it’s okay to break them. The United States is still well-known for its use of the death penalty and it executes about 40 people per year (though 17 states have abolished capital punishment). The US even allows death for the crime of drug-trafficking, though to this day no one has been executed for that crime.
But it’s not the death penalty to fear – you know, unless you plan on committing capital crimes on your visit – but rather the corporate prison system. The US prison system is now a gigantic money-factory for the country which means there are loads of reasons beyond ‘justice’ why someone might want to arrest you, throw you in jail and harden you so you re-offend.
Russia’s known for its corruption, brutal prisons and lack of regard for human rights. Just because the Gulags are officially gone doesn’t mean things have improved. Three Russian prisons regularly feature in the “worst prisons in the world” lists that are all over the internet.
Some claim that Butyrka prison has 100 inmates per cell in cells which are designed for 10 people, and there is little ventilation to begin with. The inmates are sorted by which disease they are carrying – HIV, tuberculosis, etc – and drug use is rampant. But the worst part? This is a remand prison – that means that Butyrka houses people awaiting trial.
Ognenny Ostrov is a former monastery located in Lake Novozero. It is located 400km north of Moscow and houses only those sentenced to life in prison. It is so remote there are no photos of it. The building was constructed in the 16th century and is in disrepair. The cells are 2 metres by 3 metres (6.5 feet by 10 feet) and home to four people each. Though there are reports that conditions at ‘Pyatak’ – as its affectionately called – are nowhere near as bad as in other Russian prisons devoted to those sentenced to life in jail, it’s hard to understand what could be worse than being in an insanely a crowded jail cell in the cold. (Well, I guess being in a crowded jail cell in extreme heat, such as at Butyrka, is probably worse.)
Courthouse [Public Domain]
Vladimir Central Prison is Russia’s largest, and is widely known for beatings – both from the guards and from other prisoners, under the command of the guards. Like Pyatak, Vladimir Central is old – though it only dates from the 18th century – and like both Pyatak and Butyrka, it’s crowded.
So whatever you plan on doing in Russia, don’t get arrested.
Nobody really knows who exactly is in Camp 1391, the secret Israeli prison that is whitewashed from maps of Israel – try googling it – but you definitely don’t want to find out. Many if not most visitors to Israel probably have nothing to worry about. But if you are visiting the West Bank, and you somehow get identified as a “terrorist”, well, look out. An Israeli lawyer compared a sentence to Camp 1391 to getting “disappeared” in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s. You don’t want that to happen to you.
And no, we don’t have a picture. It’s a top secret camp!
Kenya won’t execute you for possessing drugs like Malaysia, and they won’t disappear you like Israel, but if you do run afoul of the law you may end up in one of the worst prisons in the world. Kamiti prison, in Nairobi, has ‘no reliable water supply‘, that means that the prisoners have to bring their water into the prison in buckets as part of their daily routine. The prison is at over 2 and a half times capacity and experienced a cholera outbreak in 2009. One block of the prison is legendary for being particularly horrible, so horrible that I don’t think I should write about it in this space. Decorum and all.
Malaysia executes approximately 11 people per year, which is nothing compared to some of these other countries. But the problem for the traveler is that the death penalty can be used as punishment for drug trafficking and even for something as minor as the possession or discharge of a firearm. (“Abetting Suicide” is also punishable by the death penalty.) Moreover, what “trafficking” means is apparently open to wide interpretation, meaning what might be a simple possession charge in Canada or the US – or even just a fine – could conceivably be labelled “trafficking” in Malaysia, and that sentence could warrant anything from a decade or more in prison to losing one’s life.
Not only does Sudan use the death penalty to punish seemingly minor offenses such as prostitution and firearms possession – and non-offenses such as apostasy and sodomy – but they are also one of only three countries in the world to carry out executions against minors, something that is frowned upon by the rest of the world. (In case you are wondering, the other two countries are Iran and Saudi Arabia. See below. Yemen has officially banned the practice but apparently minors are still occasionally sentenced to death.) Given what’s been going on in Sudan for the last few decades, I doubt you’ll be visiting there any time soon, just know that not even teenagers are safe from capital punishment for everyday human behaviour.
Abu Gharyab Prison [Public Domain]
Capital Punishment in Iraq actually ended after the US invasion; it was officially stopped on June 10, 2003. However, it was brought back just over a year later and now the country executes over 100 people per year. Most of these people have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses, so there should be no need to worry about seemingly minor offenses warranting the death penalty. However, terrorism offenses are more open to interpretation than regular offenses. And the prisons are legendarily terrible. And really, it’s Iraq. Things haven’t been peachy there for some time. Why would you risk it anyway, unless you are one of the 36,000 or so Iraqi Canadians?
AUP Prison [Public Domain]
I doubt too many of us are planning on visiting Afghanistan, especially now that Canada no longer has soldiers there. But if you were thinking of a really risky ‘adventure vacation’ or if you just wanted to see some of the marvels of the world:
Band e Paneer [Public Domain]
Bamyan Buddha [Public Domain]
or if you are just one of the 50,000 or so Afghan Canadians, you might want to reconsider. Afghanistan currently uses the death penalty, and the use of that penalty is allowed for cases of adultery, homosexuality and apostasy, i.e. the renunciation of your faith. (So, um, I guess I’m not going there.) Since the US invasion in 2001, there has been considerable pressure applied to prevent executions for apostasy but the law is still on the books.
Like other countries whose penal code is influenced by or based on Sharia, Yemen uses the death penalty to punish acts that seem either minor or not even criminal to many Westerners. In addition to the usual suspects of murder, rape and terrorism, the death penalty (in this case, a firing squad) may be used to punish crimes such as kidnapping, robbery, prostitution, and drug trafficking, and behaviour such as adultery, “sexual misconduct” – whatever that means – and sodomy. Yemen continues to perform public executions, though many executions are now private. If an offense is deemed particularly terrible, the criminal may be flogged prior to getting shot in the heart. Talk about overkill. And unlike some other countries on this list, there is only one person who can grant clemency: the President. That means that “blood money” and other such ways of avoiding the death penalty in other Islamic societies are not on the table.
Also, though Yemen has officially banned the death penalty for minors, in practice it is believed that minors or still occasionally sentenced to death, despite the prohibition in international law.
For those of us who come from countries without religious law, criminal law in Iran might be a little confusing. Iran’s penal code is not the same as Shariah law, but it is similar (as it’s based on it). Stoning has been eliminated – as of 2012 – but lots of other punishments that we would regard as barbaric are still on the books. And Iran still executes the second most people in the world (over 300 in 2012). Here are some crimes to avoid while visiting Iran:
|Adultery||100 lashes||If you’re married|
|Alcohol and drug consumption||80 lashes||After 4th offense|
|Apostasy||Life imprisonment (women only)||If you’re male|
|Blasphemy||Death penalty or life||Yes|
|False accusation of sexual assault or rape||80 lashes||After 4th offense|
|Lesbianism||100 lashes||After 4th offense|
|Sodomy||100 lashes (if consensual) for “active” partner||Death penalty for “passive” partner|
|Soliciting a prostitue||100 lashes||After 4th offense|
|Takhfiz (homosexuality without sodomy)||100 lashes||After 4th offense|
||After 4th offense|
|Waging war against god or spreading corruption on the earth
(armed robbery, kidnapping, terrorism, armed rape, gang violence, treason, membership in an opposition group, murder, multiple attempted murders, etc)
Note that these are the worst punishments that can befall you. Iran recognizes many mitigating factors in sentencing including the payment of ‘blood money’ – if you can pay restitution to the victim or their family, maybe you won’t get your fingers chopped off.
2. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is known not just for its continued use of the death penalty, for seemingly minor crimes – or acts that are not criminal at all – but also for its public beheadings. Though there are multiple legal ways for the state to use the death penalty as punishment, the normal procedure is to behead the criminal publicly and then, if he or she has been particularly bad, to display the body for days afterwards. Fun stuff. Here are some of the crimes you can be beheaded for in Saudi Arabia
|Adultery*||Burglary||Fornication||Murder||Sorcery||Waging War Against God|
|Armed Robbery||Aircraft Hijacking||Sodomy, Homosexuality or Lesbianism||Sedition||Theft (4th conviction)|
|Blasphemy||Drug Smuggling||Idolatry||Sexual Misconduct||Treason|
*Note: For adultery, offenders are often sentenced instead to 100 lashes or stoning. Apostates are sentenced to death but given three days to change their mind.
Now some of these crimes are really open to interpretation – what exactly is sorcery or witchcraft anyway? And so that’s alarming. But what is perhaps more alarming is how many of these offenses aren’t even offenses in Canada, and could be assumed to occur in the everyday course of human life (such as ‘fornication’).
And unlike some countries on this list, where there is some reasonable expectation of leniency when a foreigner is the accused, that is not the case in Saudi Arabia. Not at all. Migrant workers have been executed in large numbers and Amnesty International estimates there are at least 45 foreign maids on death row.
Whatever you do, don’t piss off the authorities in China. China executes well over 2,000 people per year, more than the rest of the world combined – and that number’s just the educated guess. It’s probably low. Yes, these people are normally Chinese citizens – so though it is indeed horrible for them it is far less risky for us travelers – but China reserves the right to use the death penalty for fifty five different criminal offenses, easily the most of any country. These crimes include seemingly white-collar offenses such as embezzlement and fraud, as well as odd-ball stuff like the ‘production of hazardous food products’.
Here’s the full list, and be careful out there:
Crimes Against National Security
Crimes Against Public Security
Crimes Against the Person
Crimes Against Property
|Treason; separatism; armed rebellion or rioting; collaborating with the enemy; spying or espionage; selling state secrets; providing material support to the enemy.||Arson; intentional flooding; bombing; spreading poisons; spreading hazardous substances; seriously endangering public safety; sabotaging electricity; sabotaging gas, fuel or petroleum or other flammables; hijacking aircraft; illegal possession, transport, smuggling or selling of explosives or firearms; trafficking or smuggling nuclear materials; Illegally manufacturing, selling, transporting or storing hazardous materials; theft of explosives or other dangerous material; theft of firearms, ammunition or other dangerous material.||Production or sale of counterfeit medicine; production or sale of hazardous food products; smuggling weapons or ammunition; smuggling nuclear material; smuggling counterfeit money; producing couterfeit money; fraud.||Intentional homicide; intentional assault; rape; kidnapping; human trafficking.||Robbery|
Crimes Against Public Order
Crimes Against National Defense
Corruption and Bribery
Breach of Duty by Soldiers
|Escaping from prison, jail-breaking; raiding a prison; smuggling, dealing, transporting or manufacturing drugs; organized prostitution; forced prostitution.||Sabotaging weapons, military installations, or military communications; providing substandard weapons or military installations.||Embezzlement.||Insubordination; concealment or false reporting of military intelligence; refusing to pass or falsely passing orders; surrender; cowardice; hindering commanding officers or personnel on duty from performing their duty; defection with aircraft or ships; selling military secrets; spreading false information reducing morale; theft of military weaponry or supplies; illegally selling or transferring military weaponry or supplies; killing innocent inhabitants of war zones or plundering their property.|
That’s a lot of different crimes you could potentially be killed for. Moral of the story: when visiting China, obey the laws – all of them.
Bonus: North Korea
I get it, nobody except Dennis Rodman is going to travel to North Korea. But we’re still putting it on our list anyway, because you really don’t want to get arrested there. (If they even allow you to visit in the first place!) At the conservative estimate, there are at least 20 executions per year in North Korea, but that number is based on eye-witness testimony, and those people have had to escape or at least transmit that testimony abroad. It’s likely the number is higher. And these executions are public (as they are sometimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen). You can be executed for prostitution, theft and various “crimes” against the state; some of these are downright bizarre: from distributing porn to making international phone calls without permission!
Moreover, the risk isn’t just to the criminal – in 2007 a man convicted of making such phone calls was executed in front of hundreds of thousands of people and when the execution was over, 6 people died in the chaos of people leaving the stadium. This is a dangerous place.
Of course, it’s not just the death penalty to worry about it. It’s the prison camps – which contain at least 165,000 people at last estimate, and where you spend the rest of your life if sentenced there – and the “re-education” camps – where people who committed less serious crimes are held until they either confess to worse crimes and are sent to a prison camp after a forced confession, or are allowed to return to normal life, whatever that’s like.
Riley Haas has been a leading expert since 2011 on immigration matters, with hundreds of publications online. Published author of three books about political philosophy, the Beatles and the Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively. BA from Bishop’s University, MA from McMaster University. You follow Riley on Substack https://rileyhaas.substack.com.