Too bad Mark Swidan and Wendell Brown don’t play basketball for UCLA. Unlike the three Bruins players expelled by China after the intervention of President Donald Trump last week, Swidan and Brown will spend another Thanksgiving in Chinese jails after highly suspect legal proceedings.
The UCLA players confessed to going on a shoplifting spree in Hangzhou. Swidan and Brown remain in Chinese jails after questionable trials, bereft of outside counsel and refusing to confess to spurious charges, even though doing so might gain their release. And unlike LaVar Ball, father of Liangelo Ball, one of the arrested UCLA players, their parents say they’re more than ready to thank the president for getting them out.
Swidan, an erstwhile Houston business consultant and aspiring artist detained on drug charges in November 2012, was tried the following year but remains in a prison in southern China without a verdict. Likewise, Brown, a onetime Detroit football star who was coaching in China, was arrested last year and tried after a dispute in a bar and remains in jail without a verdict handed down.
Neither man had ever been in trouble before. Court authorities in Brown’s July trial received a hundred letters of support from people who know him in China.
“A troubling feature of China's criminal justice system is that a judgment in a criminal trial can be postponed indefinitely after the trial concludes,” says John Kamm, an American businessman and human rights advocate who has taken up Swidan’s plight. With the verdict in Swidan’s case postponed “at least a dozen times,” he wrote on his Dui Hua Foundation web site this week, it’s a severe miscarriage of justice, or, as a United Nations human rights official put it to him, “a cut and dry case of arbitrary detention.”
Brown’s fate seems headed in the same direction. “Faced with no American-style bail available, no discovery process about the evidence against him and a confusing array of laws that bear little resemblance to the United States,” Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel wrote on November 15, “he’s spent the past 14 months in a Chinese jail.” Like Swidan, he can’t afford a lawyer.
Both seem victims of highly circumstantial evidence, at best. Swidan, now 42, was shopping for apartment furnishings in southern China, his mother says, as well as searching for a source of helium for a company back home in Houston when he was picked up along with two other people suspected of dealing in methamphetamines. The case against him was weak, Kamm said.
“No drugs were found on Mr. Swidan or in his room,” Kamm said. “No forensic evidence has been produced— no drugs in his system, no DNA on the packages, no fingerprints on the packages or drug paraphernalia —tying Mr. Swidan to the drugs. No emails, letters, or phone calls have been found that link Mr. Swidan to any drug transaction.” Even the indictment against him said, “Swidan played a secondary role in the alleged crime,” Kamm wrote. Some of the other defendants in the case, which included four Mexicans, a Canadian, a Hong Kong resident and four Chinese citizens, may have fingered the American to improve their own chances at trial, he suggested.
The case against Brown seems similarly fraught. “As a 6-foot, 225-pound African-American in the middle of China,” Wetzel wrote, “he stood out." Such buff athletes—Brown also ran a fitness gym—attract curiosity and awe from Chinese when they go out. So it was on Sept. 24, 2016, when Brown attended a friend’s birthday party at a bar in the ancient city of Chongqing. Some Chinese men there “wanted to drink with him, but Brown declined,” Wetzel wrote, citing Brown’s supporters. “They got angry and a dispute broke out.” The police arrested him for assault but Brown insisted that “he never hit anyone and only raised his arms to block bottles being thrown at him.”
Brown, who has a degree in criminal justice from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, seems to be holding up fairly well. In letters home to his distraught parents in Detroit, he has said he has “tried to find peace with everything” and practices meditation, exercise and Bible study, “his faith pulling him through,” Wetzel wrote. His father, a barber, and his mother, a hair stylist, don’t have the wherewithal to come up with the $100,000 “in restitution” that a Chinese lawyer told them could obtain his release. As of November 18, their GoFundMe legal defense account had raised $13,526.
Swidan’s mother Katherine set up a GoFundMe account that has fared even more poorly, with only $3,342 raised since his imprisonment. And he has suffered greatly from his five years in the Jiangmen Detention Center, where, according to several accounts, prisoners spent their days assembling plastic flowers with harsh chemicals for export. Once a stocky high school wrestler, by mid-2016 he had lost nearly half of his 220 pounds, Katherine Swidan says. Frequently shackled and bullied, his health failing, he told a visiting U.S. consular official that he felt like killing himself. Last month, she wrote on Facebook that she had “just received [his] last will and testament from the U.S. consulate in China,” and appealed for money to help send him “a box with long underwear, heavy socks [and] long sleeve sweaters,” because “there is a harsh winter coming and there is no heat” in the prison. She also said she needed to put funds in his prison account for food that he needs “desperately to survive.”
The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment on his case.
U.S. State Department officers make monthly visits to Jiangmen and Chongqing to check on the welfare of Swidan and Brown, but there’s little else they can do without pressure on Beijing from the highest levels in Washington. Michigan’s two senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, have taken up Brown’s cause to no discernable effect. Last March, another Texan, Sandy Phan-Gillis, a former Vietnamese refugee convicted of trumped-up espionage charges in China, was released after top U.S. officials repeatedly raised her case with Beijing, Newsweek reported.
Last week, Antoinette Brown was watching TV in her Detroit living room when a report came on about Trump whining in a tweet he hadn’t gotten a public thank you from the three UCLA basketball players he’d helped get released. They did eventually thank him, but on Sunday, the president was in a snit again over a remark by Lavar Ball belittling his intervention on behalf of his son and the other UCLA players.
“I should have left them in jail!” Trump tweeted.
“I’ll thank him,” Antoinette Brown said. “If Trump helps us, if he helps Wendell, I won’t stop thanking him.” After all, she told Dan Wetzel, her son was innocent. The UCLA kids were guilty. “I pray he’ll help get my innocent son out,” she said of Trump. “And if he does, I’ll thank him and thank him and thank him.”
Katherine Swidan says the same. “If he intervened and helped my son get home, I’d thank him,” she told Newsweek on Sunday. “And I’d thank the president of China, too.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend.
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