On June 30, Rakim Mayers, also known as A$AP Rocky, was detained while on tour in Sweden for allegedly committing assault.
President Donald Trump personally called the Swedish prime minister and has his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, working on the case. He even sent Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs Carl Risch to Sweden to “monitor the situation.”
This forceful display seeking preferential treatment for a wealthy rapper who is incarcerated in a wealthy country must come as a shock to the estimated 3,000 Americans held in jails across the world and who are wondering when the president will offer to pay their bail.
In my prior life, I worked as an American Citizens Services Officer at U.S. embassies and consulates in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain. In this role, I visited hundreds of Americans locked up overseas in squalid conditions. The food could be rancid, and the conditions severely overcrowded in almost all of them. Yet the best we could do for them and their families was a diplomatic note, a call from an ambassador, and providing a list of local attorneys.
At the State Department, we were trained to tell Americans locked up abroad that our job was to ensure that they were receiving fair and humane treatment. This often meant working with prison officials to ensure American citizens were receiving appropriate medical care and had a trust fund so that friends and families could transfer money to them.
When these Americans ask us to get the president involved or compel these countries to release them because “we’re America,” we were forced to tell them that America has no authority over other countries and we have to abide by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963) by not interfering in the judicial process of other nations.
Yet here, we are asking Sweden to do what we, as Americans, would never allow.
Imagine if a famous Swedish rapper were being held in one of our jails and the Swedish prime minister called to personally vouch for him and request his release? President Trump’s reaction would likely be the same as when Pope Francis and several governments asked that Mexican nationals be spared the death penalty by Texas. Which was: Our country, our rules.
We would also remind any country’s leader that in the United States there is a clear separation between the judiciary and the executive.
Yet, Trump’s belief that a phone call from one head of state to another encouraging interference with judicial proceedings is revealing. It demonstrates that our president’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the proper role of a president and his desire for a president who is less George Washington and more Vladimir Putin of Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
The surrealism of this moment and the hypocrisy that comes with it can only be encapsulated in one word: Galling.
The amount of energy and time being spent on a single prisoner is galling considering our indifference to the Americans being tortured in jail right now in Iran and North Korea. It is galling considering that Saudi Arabia dismembered a legal permanent resident of the United States and all they got was public praise from our president.
It is galling in the face of an American Navy veteran being shot and killed in a jail in Nicaragua. And it is even more galling considering that Sweden consistently ranks near the top globally in terms of its criminal justice whereas the United States ranks far lower and incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.
Sweden provides prisoners such as A$AP Rocky with three meals a day, clean water, a desk, and their own room with a TV.
At the same time that A$AP Rocky has access to sausage, cod, potatoes and vegetables, the Trump Administration is arguing that migrant children (i.e., foreigners from other countries) should not have access to sleep, toothbrushes, nor soap.
Jails across America lack heat and air conditioning, states are facing a crisis of overcrowded prisons, and there have been several instances of prisoners being forced to drink unsanitary water with high levels of arsenic. There are U.S. citizens being held in immigration detention camps who must fight for their own release.
If A$AP Rocky is released, it won’t be because Trump is brilliant nor Swedes were wrong to hold the artist. It will be because of the gall of our nation that they would make the release of a wealthy rapper from a wealthy prison in a wealthy country a priority.
But then perhaps once A$AP Rocky is released, we can focus our attention on the thousands of prisoners locked up both home and abroad.
Chris Richardson, an attorney based in Greenville, South Carolina, is a former Foreign Service Officer and U.S. diplomat who served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain.
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