In recent years, the darkness of Chinese prisons has been exposed, yet little is known about foreigners’ experiences in Chinese jails. Mark Swidan, an American businessman detained in China since November 2012, had awful experiences. He has survived on starvation rations while working in slave-like conditions in a chilly, concrete cell in Jiangmen Detention Center in China, wondering if the U.S. government will ever free him.
When the Houston businessman traveled to China for home flooring and fixtures, his mother, Katherine Swidan, told ABC station KTRK that Mark Swidan was on the phone with his mother when Chinese authorities entered his Guangzhou hotel room. Mark Swidan was arrested on November 13, 2012, conspiring to make and distribute methamphetamine. On April 30, 2019, he was found guilty and sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve by the Jiangmen Intermediate People’s Court.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) said on arbitrary detention determined on February 10, 2020, that Swidan had been unlawfully jailed in breach of international law and called for his immediate release “with compensation and other reparations.”
As Newsweek reported on April 30, 2019, supporter John Kamm, an American businessman, and human rights activist, previously said Swidan had once visited a factory where Chinese authorities alleged the meth was produced and Swidan had been in a room rented by another individual where drugs were detected. Kamm stated that there was “no forensic evidence – no fingerprints, DNA, or drugs in his system. Nor has evidence been presented of his ‘coordinating’ role – no emails, no logs of call, etc.” He continued, “I am convinced that Mr. Swidan is innocent.”
Katherine Swidan, Swidan’s mother, has received information regarding her son’s detention over the years, both through notes from the U.S. Consulate in China and through Swidan’s letters. The Washington Examiner looked into a letter written under the Obama administration, which detailed how Swidan went on repeated hunger strikes, including one that lasted 34 days.
In social media posts, Katherine Swidan said that her son was shackled and made to labor 14 hours a day, manufacturing silk flowers for large American retailers. His fingers cracked and bled from the strong chemicals, and the metal cuffs injured him.
In his letter, he also mentioned that a Muslim inmate refused to eat pork-tainted rice and was forced to eat it for two weeks. Hot mustard was delivered through a tube into his nose as part of these “meals.”
“They get inmates to help, and a doctor has a syringe with a tube attached, the syringe is being loaded with hot mustard, and they stick it up to their nose and sneak the tube into their throat,” Swidan wrote. “Then they stick a piece of wood in their mouth to hold it open, even if the inmates’ teeth were broken on it. And you got inmates and guards beating them. Then they shove rice and pork in…and wash it down by pouring a box of milk as choking eyes bulging the whole time.”
Swidan said he could hear people “screaming bloody murder” outside his cell window all night while they were beaten while chained to 3-foot support columns.
According to an email exchange Swidan’s mother shared with Newsweek, in 2016, one of the U.S. consular officials who regularly visited Swidan in jail told her that her son was depressed and “planning to kill himself.”
Former Reuters journalist Peter Humphrey, who was imprisoned in China and now advises Swidan’s family, said, “He is very thin, ill, and the Chinese refuse to provide the U.S. Consulate with medical or mental tests,” adding “They are forcing medications [on him] daily, and he doesn’t know what they are. His teeth have receded into his gums, and he has some kind of a fungus on his forehead.”
According to Humphrey, the poor diet has been linked to prisoner health issues. Breakfast is a dish of grainy rice with pickled beets, served around 6 a.m. Gritty rice with stir fry comprising rotting veggies and an unknown type of meat is served for lunch and dinner.