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Sens. Ted Cruz, John Cornyn push for release of Houston man held in Chinese prison

Houston Chronicle 2/1/2023 Benjamin Wermund, Washington Bureau
© J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Texas lawmakers are renewing calls for the release of Mark Swidan, a Houston man who has been "unjustly and arbitrarily" detained on drug charges in China since 2012 and was sentenced to death in 2019.

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn introduced a resolution in the Senate on Wednesday urging the U.S. to "deepen and prioritize" efforts to secure Swidan's release. U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, is leading the same resolution in the House. 

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The resolutions come as Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to Beijing later this week to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, when the lawmakers hope Blinken will make the case for Swidan's release. The Biden administration has secured the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Trevor Reed, both Texans, from Russia in prisoner swaps. 

“Secretary Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing should be the final chapter in this tragedy," Cruz said. "I am calling on the Biden administration to use all the tools at our disposal to secure his release, and on the government of China to finally release him and return him home.”

Swidan is one of three American citizens who the U.S. has considered to be arbitrarily or unjustly detained and his 10-year imprisonment — during which he has suffered psychological torture and deteriorating health — is considered the longest an American has been held without a final adjudication of his case. Swidan was sentenced to death in 2019, but appealed the ruling the following year and is still waiting for a decision. 

“For the last decade, Mark Swidan’s family has tirelessly fought for his return after he was wrongfully detained and sentenced to death by the Chinese government,” Cornyn said. “The human rights abuses Mark has suffered at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party are horrific, and I will continue to push the Biden administration to expedite his case and secure his release.”

Swidan was arrested on suspicion of trafficking and manufacturing methamphetamine after police found drugs on his driver and translator, who blamed Swidan, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that pushes for clemency and better treatment of Chinese prisoners.

The foundation says the evidence against Swidan is entirely circumstantial: Swidan was once in a factory that police later identified as having been used to manufacture drugs. 

According to review of the case by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, no drugs were found on Swidan or in his hotel room, the prosecution did not produce any forensic evidence in the case, records in Swidan’s passport indicate he was not even in China at the time of the alleged offenses, and 11 other individuals indicted in relation to the alleged conspiracy could not identify him.

Swidan faced a five-year trial and was detained for the length of it. He claims to have undergone severe psychological torture for the purpose of extracting a confession, according to the working group's findings. 

"It is evident that Mr. Swidan has been unable to defend himself properly, as he has been subjected to a detention of extraordinary length, to ill-treatment and to coercion with the purpose of extracting a confession and as he has received ineffective legal assistance," the U.N. group found.

The U.N. group's final report called for Swidan's immediate release and for him to receive compensation for his time in prison. 

The Dui Hua Foundation, which has kept tabs on Swidan, says he has been deprived of sleep and food and has lost more than 100 pounds while incarcerated. The organization says he has been held in solitary confinement and only allowed one phone call to his mother, Katherine Swidan. 

Katherine Swidan, who lives in Luling, told Reuters that she has not seen a photograph of her son over the last decade, and the last time she heard his voice was in 2018.

"My message for Blinken is: say their names," she said of her son and other prisoners in China. "They're American citizens. They've been wrongfully detained. Enough is enough."

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

John Kamm, who founded the Dui Hua Foundation, said the State Department is "very aware" of Swidan's case and is "on board" with pushing for his release. "They want this win," Kamm said. 

Kamm said he is "somewhat hopeful" Swidan could be returned to the U.S. and there are a number of ways China could easily move to release him on his appeal, including changing his sentence to immediate deportation or reducing it to a number of years, granting him medical parole and allowing him to return to the U.S. for treatment. 

But diplomatic negotiations could be more difficult than those that secured the release of prisoners from Russia. In those cases, Americans were freed in exchange for prisoners here who Russia wanted returned. Kamm said China doesn't appear to want anything in return for Swidan and other American prisoners.

"What they want is, they say, a better relationship with the United States," Kamm said. "If you want to have a better relationship with the United States, you should release American citizen prisoners. And Mark Swidan is right at the top of the list."

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