There are at least 54 Americans being wrongly held overseas today. They haven’t broken any laws. They haven’t received a fair hearing. They have been rendered political pawns, detained in dingy cells in places like Cuba, Iran, Russia, and China.
Last week, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich became one of them when he was taken by agents in Yekaterinburg, where he was working on a story. He was accused of espionage and taken to Lefortovo prison in Moscow.
For some of us, Wednesday night marks the start of Passover—the holiday of freedom, the commemoration of the Israelites’ liberation from captivity in Egypt. The obligation of anyone celebrating Passover is as simple as it is emotionally difficult: Each of us must feel as though we ourselves are being freed from bondage.
It is hard to reach back in time to the days of Pharaoh. And yet our world provides far too many examples of human beings who are still awaiting their freedom. Evan Gershkovich is one. Another is Mark Swidan, whose harrowing story in a Chinese detention center is recounted by Peter Savodnik below. —BW
In the fall of 2012, Mark Swidan was 37 and engaged to a Filipino woman named Mylene. Mark had met her on a trip to Manila in 2011. He loved Southeast Asia, and he’d built a small interior design business selling hand-carved knickknacks from Thailand, artworks from Vietnam—that kind of thing.
He had also just bought, with his mother Katherine Swidan, a fixer-upper outside Houston that the three of them planned to move into after the wedding. The house needed work, and Swidan googled a factory near Guangzhou that sold flooring and light fixtures for almost nothing.
So in October, Katherine said, her son jumped on a plane to buy housewares halfway across the world. This was an odd thing to do, but less so for a man who had a penchant for Asia. Katherine told me that her son also planned to visit Macau, the Las Vegas of China, which is a quick train trip away, before returning home.
He had been in Guangzhou a few weeks—Katherine wasn’t sure how long—and on his last night there, November 13, 2012, he took his driver and interpreter to dinner to thank them for carting him around.
After dinner, he returned to his room at the Changping Hui Hotel, in Dongguan, near Guangzhou. He was on the phone with his mother when she heard a bang on the other end of the line, a rush of voices, and then nothing. She had no idea where he’d gone.
“I was frantic,” Katherine told me. We were in her one-bedroom apartment in Luling, Texas, 45 minutes south of Austin. “About two weeks after that happened, finally somebody from the State Department called me and said he’s been detained.”
Prosecutors in nearby Jiangmen had accused Swidan of colluding with a Mexican cartel to make methamphetamine.
Almost everyone outside China—including the White House and the United Nations Human Rights Council—considers the charges a farce.
“According to the record on Mr. Swidan’s passport, he was not in China at the time of the alleged offence,” the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions observed in a February 2020 report. “Furthermore, none of the 11 individuals also accused of being involved in the manufacture of drugs could identify him.”
It didn’t matter. In China, the criminal justice system is not really about crime or justice as much as it is a tool used by the powerful to shut down or scare off those who threaten their power.
“Probably, somebody local—not the center, in Beijing—wanted Swidan put away, and they got the police to make the case, and then the Iron Triangle—the police, the prosecutors, the courts—kicked in,” Donald Clarke, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in Chinese law, told me.
“Once it gets to the prosecutor, the court knows that if they don’t convict, then the prosecutor personally and the prosecutor’s office as well get a black mark,” Clarke said. “Once it gets into the court, there is no realistic chance that the person is going to be acquitted.”
U.S. authorities say they have no idea what Swidan did to spark his arrest. Probably nothing illegal. The Human Rights Council report noted that he “might have been a witness,” but it doesn’t state what, if anything, he witnessed, and it goes on to note that Swidan refused to sign a confession. At Swidan’s trial, in November 2013, the prosecution relied entirely on hearsay, producing “neither forensic nor telecommunications evidence” of any crime, according to the report. The court delayed passing judgment on Swidan numerous times, leaving him in legal limbo.
Whatever the reason, for the past decade, Swidan, now 48, has been held at the Jiangmen Municipal Detention Center, south of Guangzhou. In 2019, without explanation, he was sentenced to death. (The sentence has been suspended.) At the time, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was in Beijing to discuss U.S.–Chinese trade relations. Swidan was not on the agenda.
Swidan had been a wrestler in high school, and weighed in at over 200 pounds when he arrived in China.
But his health has deteriorated. In a recent letter to the National Security Council, he wrote that he was missing teeth, and he was bleeding from his gums.
Nicholas Burns, the United States ambassador to China, wanted confirmation, so on March 1—last month—he went to the detention center to visit Swidan. U.S. ambassadors rarely do this sort of thing, but the Biden administration wanted to send a message to Xi Jinping.
After a guard led the ambassador into a holding room where Swidan was waiting, the guard told Burns that physical contact with the prisoner was strictly forbidden and that Swidan was barred from lowering his mask—in keeping with the detention center’s Covid regulations.
The ambassador, according to two sources briefed on the meeting, replied, “In the United States, it’s customary to shake hands when you meet someone.”
He proceeded to shake hands with Swidan, who, until that moment, had not had physical contact with anyone outside prison since late 2012.
Then, the ambassador told Swidan, “Lower your mask, son.”
Burns is a career diplomat who has been in the heart of the American foreign policy establishment for decades—he served on the National Security Council, he was the U.S. ambassador to NATO, and he’s a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He knows all about the ugly underside of international relations.
But when Swidan lowered his mask, the ambassador was shocked. Swidan looked emaciated, shell-shocked, broken. His knee was in bad shape. So were his fingers. He hadn’t slept in the dark for years—the prison kept the lights on around the clock—and his mental state was wobbly. He had threatened to kill himself more than once.
When I shared this story with a State Department spokesman, he replied: “That is not inaccurate.”
Over the years, Swidan has sent his mother drawings—detailed ballpoint-pen pictures of faces, teeth, eyes, pretty girls, large breasts, a Chinese guard, a geisha girl. There was one that was a picture of two zombie-looking characters, one male, one female, feasting on the intestines of another man, the words “True LOVE” on top. There was another that was really a card for his fiancée. It was a drawing of a town, with a church and “MERRY CHRISTMAS MYLENE,” and it was dated simply 2014—two years into his imprisonment.
That was before Katherine mustered the courage to tell him that Mylene had moved on. She was married by then to a plumber in England. They had a family. Back then, Swidan was still allowed to call home occasionally; that’s how she broke the news.
“These are things a mother shouldn’t see,” Katherine told me, glancing at the drawings. She had had to share all kinds of bad news with her son: his friend who died in a motorcycle crash; his other friend who committed suicide; his brother, who had been in a grunge band in Austin in the nineties and was now a trucker—and had stage four cancer.
She hobbled around her apartment as she talked. She was in pain. She had degenerative joint disease, and she needed a hip replacement, but she wouldn’t get that taken care of before her son came home. “What if I don’t wake up?” she said. Swidan’s father, Asa, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan, had died in the early nineties.
Katherine hasn’t heard her son’s voice since 2018. The detention center won’t let him call. They haven’t said why. Sources familiar with the Swidan case said it was common for Chinese authorities to try to make prisoners feel more isolated.
Around the time his phone privileges were cut off, Swidan started to send little notes inside his drawings, which the prison delivered to the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, and the consulate sent, in batches, to Katherine. That was his only way of communicating with her.
It is unclear whether the notes had eluded the guards who monitored outgoing mail, or whether they didn’t care. The notes were mostly garbled, rambling, fragmented—long lists of names, with lots of capital letters. But they contained important nuggets of information, too.
The most important nugget was about the factory next door. That was where, Swidan said, prisoners were forced to make silk flowers. The factory’s clients included Walmart and Hobby Lobby—or, at least, he had reason to assume as much. Jason Poblete, the president of Global Liberty Alliance, a nonprofit in Northern Virginia that lobbies for the release of Americans wrongly held overseas, told me he had seen notes in which Swidan described what can only be called slave labor but was not at liberty to share them.
In a July 2022 letter to Walmart’s general counsel, Poblete noted that Swidan had described “atrocious work conditions, including prisoner lashings and workers being forced to make silk flowers with bloody fingertips.” There was also, Poblete wrote, “a ruthless punishment” for prisoners who didn’t meet production quotas: “a ‘human clothesline’ where prisoners are tied to a rope line hands up, naked, and are then lashed.”
The letter went on: “While we cannot verify at this juncture all the information we have been provided by Mark and other sources, you need to know that a sign with Walmart’s name and logo, along with another American-based company is purportedly visible in the silk flower factory.”
Poblete sent a similar letter to Hobby Lobby’s attorney.
I reached out to representatives from both companies. Neither replied.
Peter Humphrey, from the UK, spent two years in a Chinese detention center, from 2013 to 2015. He described his daily routine, in an email, like this:
They get you up around 6am/6.30 am. They sound off an electrical bugle in the yard, a kind of reveille call. It’s a very sombre, ghostly sound. I was in a 15 square meter cell with 12 cellmates. There are bars at each end of the cell. The windows outside the bars are never closed. You get up and wash in a heavy old sink with only cold water, five minutes per detainee. And your toilet is a squat hole in the corner of the cell. There are no bunks in detention centres; you sleep on a hard floor under a flimsy duvet or blanket.
Despite all that, Swidan kept sending drawings, notes, and letters to the consulate.
In December of 2022, he sent a letter to Saloni Sharma, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, in Washington.
The letter started: “Ms. Sharma, Warm Greetings & Happy Holidays/New Year to you and yours!”
Swidan said he was an artist and entrepreneur and a “diplomatic hostage.”
He described his body breaking down. “Hands destroyed & knee & skin, teeth.” He continued: “6′2″ 210–220 [pounds] of lean muscle in 2012 & now 160 of skin and bones.”
“It’s just me and my best friend (mom) left!” he went on. He added—correctly—that Katherine was on food stamps and didn’t have a car.
Toward the bottom of the note, he declared: “I need Help & Voices! I Am an Absolute Asset to the USA and The National Security Council.”
Swidan was never a priority for the Obama or Trump administrations. There were bigger things to worry about: Taiwan, North Korea, the U.S.–China trade relationship.
“I think the inclination was to throw him under the bus,” John Kamm, the executive director of Dui Ha, a nonprofit in San Francisco that fights for the rights of Americans who have been detained in China, said of the Obama administration’s handling of the case.
“And then it got worse under Trump.”
A Republican staffer on Capitol Hill said “all the China-bashing” coming out of the White House made it harder for the Americans to push for Swidan’s release.
The bottom line was: He didn’t matter to anyone in Washington.
Not that other Americans were treated the same way.
In November 2017, President Trump intervened on behalf of three UCLA basketball players arrested in Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, for shoplifting—which they confessed to. A week later, they were released, prompting Trump to ask, on Twitter, whether they would thank him.
In February 2022, WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for trying to smuggle drugs into Russia. (There were vape cartridges in her bag.) Not only did Secretary of State Antony Blinken intervene on her behalf, the White House ultimately agreed to swap her for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and was serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison in Illinois. Griner was home by December, ten months after her arrest.
There had been grumbling in right-wing circles that the Biden administration helped Griner because she’s a black lesbian. More important than her identity were her influence and connections. Jada Pinkett Smith and Mia Farrow had tweeted in her support. There was a professional WeAreBG public relations campaign. There had never been a #WeAreMS.
“If this were a politically connected person, he would have been out a long time ago,” John Kamm said of Swidan. “He has really been horribly treated. It is a complete travesty of justice.”
A senior Senate aide, referring to Katherine Swidan, said: “She doesn’t have the resources to elevate his case, and it has a direct bearing on her case.”
It didn’t help that U.S.–China relations are at their all-time nadir, said Andrew Scobell, a China expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. John Kamm, who’s traveled to China over 100 times since the early 1970s, said: “Even after the Cultural Revolution, it wasn’t this bad.”
There had been some hope, in January and February of this year, that the mood was shifting, that there might be a new rapprochement between the U.S. and China. “But then the balloons happened,” a source on Capitol Hill familiar with the Swidan case told me. “The balloons really fucked him.” He was referring to the Chinese spy balloons first spotted over Montana.
Ambassador Burns knew that just showing up at the prison in Jiangmen had helped elevate the Swidan case. That was the point. (Scobell called the meeting a “very positive sign.”)
Swidan’s best hope, everyone agreed, was “medical parole,” as Scobell put it. That may have been what Burns was thinking, too. It was a face-saving measure for the Chinese, a way of saying: We’re going to let the drug runner out early because we feel bad for him.
That would have been unimaginable until recently. But now the volume has ticked up: Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn introduced a resolution on Swidan’s behalf; Cruz mentioned him on Face the Nation; the ambassador paid his visit. Mark Swidan and really, his mother, are becoming a nuisance in Beijing. Xi Jinping has almost certainly never heard of him, but other people close to Xi, those tasked with following the things important Americans say or do, are paying attention. There is always a political calculus, and it is slowly shifting.
In the meantime, Katherine just received another batch of 20 drawings from her son. When I spoke with her a few days ago, she hadn’t looked at them yet. I asked her when she planned to.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t brought myself to read them yet. I need quiet, and I need a glass of whiskey, and I need to smoke.”
You can learn more about the WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich here.