arrested overseas

What to do if you have been arrested overseas

Banged up abroad? Step by step guide for Australians arrested overseas.

Every year, about 1,000 Australians are arrested overseas, and at any given time there are more than 250 Australians in prisons in other countries. This guide will cover what to do if you are arrested or detained overseas.

Generally, your only official link to Australia while imprisoned overseas will be in the form of a consular officer.

Find out what you should do if you have been detained overseas, what the Australian government can and cannot do to help, and consider checking whether you are eligible for any special government assistance, or whether any special circumstances might apply.

What to do if you have been imprisoned overseas

If you have been arrested, you have the right to contact the nearest Australian embassy, high commission or consulate, or the Consular Emergency Centre on +61 2 6261 3305.

The Australian embassy is not generally concerned with whether you are innocent or guilty, rather it is focused on ensuring your welfare. The goal is to:

  • Make sure you have regular contact with a consular officer
  • Have access to legal advice
  • Are treated no less favourably than locals detained for similar offences
  • Are having your basic needs met and receiving at least a basic humanitarian standard of prisoner welfare

Your nearest embassy or consulate can be found on the map below.

If imprisoned overseas, the Australian government can:

  • Visit you while detained
  • Help you get information, access telephones or access funds
  • Give you a list of local English-speaking lawyers
  • Arrange for your family or friends to be contacted and informed of what has happened
  • Give your family and friends the information needed to send you money
  • Raise serious, justified complaints about ill-treatment in prison
  • Arrange a small loan under the Prisoner Loan Scheme, subject to eligibility criteria
  • Monitor your court trials
  • Give you information on the International Transfer of Prisoners Scheme, or other applicable support programs

Can travel insurance help if I’ve been arrested overseas?

Generally not, as almost all policies carry general exclusions for illegal activities, as well as detainment by overseas authorities. If you have been arrested or detained, whether or not you have committed a crime, do not expect travel insurance to cover any costs.

Travel insurance can provide cover for liability costs that you face.

What the Australian government cannot do

Outside of applicable special circumstances, the Australian government cannot:

  • Get you out of prison or determine when you are released
  • Determine your innocence (or guilt)
  • Conduct any investigations into the alleged crime
  • Provide you with legal advice or interpreters. They can, however, point you towards local English-speaking lawyers and interpreting services
  • Pay your legal fees, instigate court procedures or otherwise interfere with the local judicial processes
  • Arrange your bail or pay your fines

The Australian government cannot override or interfere with another country’s justice systems, immigration programs, customs or quarantines, or other local offices, even if they are unduly harsh or unreasonable by Australian standards.

Except for general support from your consulate officer and special assistance programs, you should not expect direct assistance from the Australian government.

Special government assistance programs

In some circumstances, there may be special government assistance programs which can help you in ways consular officers can’t.

Prisoner Loan Scheme

In certain circumstances, a consular officer may be able to arrange a loan for you under this scheme. After your release this needs to be repaid.

Requirements:

  • Adequate food, medical facilities, and other essentials such as clothing and bedding are not provided by the prison
  • You are unable to organise a loan through family or friends
  • The country you’re being held in is approved for the Prisoner Loan Scheme

Serious Overseas Criminal Matters Scheme

If you are facing extremely serious charges, usually either death or imprisonment for 20 years or more, then you may apply for a grant to cover legal costs related to your defence and related expenses. This cannot be used to hire a private lawyer in place of an overseas court-appointed lawyer or public defender, and is instead meant to ensure that people are getting defence and legal counsel to defend themselves from extremely serious allegations, where they otherwise might not.

Requirements:

  • Considered on a case-by-case basis
  • A lack of financial resources is not enough in itself to qualify you for this program
  • Having legal assistance available in the relevant overseas jurisdiction typically means you will be declined for this scheme

Special Circumstances Scheme

In special circumstances, you may be eligible for this scheme. It is intended to provide financial support in situations where the Australian government has a moral obligation to get involved, but you are not eligible for other schemes or those other schemes would carry unwanted side-effects.

Requirements:

  • The Australian government has a moral obligation to do something. This is typically considered on a case-by-case basis. Note that simply being an Australian citizen does not obligate the government to do anything
  • You cannot otherwise meet costs without incurring serious financial difficulty or cannot receive legal assistance in your location
  • You have a continuing connection with Australia

International Transfer of Prisoners Scheme

Australia has agreements with a number of other countries where, if conditions are met, prisoners can be returned to Australia to serve out the remainder of their sentence. Transfer agreements are possible with more than 60 countries.

Requirements:

  • You are an Australian citizen or permanent resident with community ties back in Australia
  • You are imprisoned in one of the many countries with which Australia has a transfer agreement
  • The terms of transfer have been agreed to by all parties involved, including yourself, both countries and the relevant Australian state government
  • You have at least six months of your sentence left to serve, although this requirement can be waived or varied
  • The crime you committed was also illegal in Australia, although this condition can be waived
  • Your transfer is not likely to prevent your surrender to an extradition country
  • Neither your imprisonment or the conviction it’s based upon is subject to appeal

Applying for a pardon

The Australian government cannot get you out of prison, but if requested it can initiate a pardon application. This is entirely a matter for the local authorities in the country of your imprisonment, and the decision is up to them.

Requirements:

  • Local law and practice allow for pardons
  • You have served a sentence approximately equivalent to what you would have if the crime had been committed in Australia, minus a year for the authorities to process and grant the pardon

Formal complaints of mistreatment

The Australian government can make formal representations to local authorities if you are being mistreated under international law. Where possible, you should first raise concerns with local authorities.

Requirements:

  • You are receiving treatment inferior to that received by equivalent local inmates
  • There are lengthy and unreasonable delays in bringing your case or subsequent trials to court, relative to the typical standards in that country
  • You are not receiving medical care

Special circumstances to consider

  • Dual citizenship: Under international law, countries are not required to recognise dual citizenship. If you are an Australian citizen with dual passports, and have been arrested in the country of your other nationality, then the authorities in that country may deny you consular assistance, and can functionally consider you not to be an Australian citizen.
  • You are receiving or making Centrelink or child support payments: Make sure you ask a consular officer to inform the Department of Human Services of your incarceration so they can make arrangements.
Picture: Shutterstock

Andrew Munro

Andrew writes for finder.com, comparing products, writing guides and looking for new ways to help people make smart decisions. He's a fan of insurance, business news and cryptocurrency.

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