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‘I have to get President Trump’s attention’: A mother’s anguish as her son faces the death penalty in China

Katherine Swidan and her son Mark Swidan, who has been held in a Chinese detention centre for nearly 7 years. Katherine Swidan

Katherine Swidan keeps losing weight.

She hasn’t had much of an appetite since April, when a Chinese court found her son Mark guilty of drug charges — he says he is innocent — and sentenced him to death, suspended for two years. The stress of the years-long ordeal and the thought of his living conditions in prison induces daily agony. 

It’s hard for me to eat when I know Mark is not, Swidan told Global News from her home in Luling, Texas. “Every waking hour I know that he is suffering.” 

She moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Luling after she sold her house in Houston, along with most of her belongings, in order to afford the legal bills and costs associated with Mark’s case. As a 69-year-old widow who lives on a fixed income, she doesn’t have much to spare.

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Her son’s misfortune, though unique, is one plot point in the mounting tensions between the U.S. and China, and has parallels to recent sentences issued by China in criminal cases involving Canadians and other foreign citizens there. 

“My son and the others, they’re pawns for China,” Swidan said. “This sentence is purely political.”

Most family members of the others who are detained have said very little publicly. Her experience serves as a prism through which to view their experiences as they wait for information about their loved ones. And those experiences can be fraught, given China’s often unpredictable justice system.

“I think the reason why other people don’t speak out is they’re afraid it’s going to make it worse,” Swidan said. “I’m cried out and prayed out. And I appeal, in my prayers, that God will go into the hearts and minds of the Chinese and have mercy on my son.” 

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Mark Swidan, an American man sentenced to death in China.
Mark Swidan, an American man sentenced to death in China. Katherine Swidan / Facebook

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Mark’s case dates back to November 2012 when he was first arrested in southern China during a trip to source flooring and fixtures for his home and business in Houston, Swidan said. She describes him as an artist and interior designer who enjoyed travelling through Asia. He was supposed to get married that December.

Chinese authorities accused the American man, then 37 years old, of drug offences related to a meth ring after raiding his hotel room that November. Police reportedly found drugs on the driver and interpreter who were with him. Advocates for Mark say there is no evidence of drugs linked to him, and he has no criminal record.

John Kamm, the executive director of Dui Hua, a non-profit humanitarian organization based in San Francisco that advocates for the rights of detainees in China, has been working on Mark’s case for years. 

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“The evidence is really weak, circumstantial, boils down to him having been at a factory that was subsequently used to produce drugs. That’s it. There’s no forensic evidence,” said Kamm, who has helped free hundreds of prisoners in China since the 1990s, in an interview with Global News.

“Even with Chinese officials, when I bring this up, they really are pretty embarrassed to have a situation where a man can be held in a detention centre for six and a half years without adjudication.”

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The Chinese justice system is notorious for lacking transparency and pushing back procedural deadlines. Over the last year, amid the trade disputes and deteriorating relations with the U.S., China has taken harsh action on his case and similar cases involving Canadians and other foreign citizens.

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Kamm, who works with families of people from around the world who are detained in China, including Canadians, said that in all his decades of his work, the current situation is as worse as it’s ever been.

Confrontation is taking place on many fronts. The trade front, the technology front, which Canada is well aware of,” he said. 

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In April, seven years after he was first detained, Mark and 10 others, including Canadian man Fan Wei, were found guilty of drug trafficking and production. Wei, who was born in China, was sentenced to death.

Ottawa has asked for clemency in that matter and condemned the death penalty.

Mark, now 44, is believed to be the first American to be sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in China, which Amnesty International says executes more people than any other country. His sort of sentence is usually commuted to life in prison.

In January, another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, was sentenced to death for drug offences stemming back to 2014. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the death penalty sentence in that case as “arbitrary,” and the matter further damaged the already strained relations between Canada and China. 

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“Our thoughts are with Robert at this time,” Schellenberg’s aunt told reporters in January. “It is rather unimaginable what he must be feeling and thinking. It is a horrific, unfortunate, heartbreaking situation.” 

Schellenberg, who previously pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in Canada, appealed that decision during a hearing in May.

Images of Schellenberg in a Chinese courtroom were publicized by China at the time, whereas China has not released any images of Mark during his detention.

“I would love to get any glance of Mark,” said Swidan.

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In 2018, Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecom Huawei, was arrested by the RCMP in Vancouver and is currently facing extradition to the U.S. over allegations of fraud and violating sanctions against Iran. The extradition proceedings have sent China into a rage, and two other Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were subsequently detained by Chinese authorities, moves that have been widely characterized as retaliation for Meng.

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“The relationship now is very difficult, very challenging,” Kamm said. “And obviously you have to look at the overall environment when you look at any individual case. And the environment right now is not conducive for the Chinese to show clemency to foreign prisoners.”

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Against this geopolitical backdrop, Swidan is going all out to raise awareness about her son, and shore up enough resources to travel to China to see him in person.

She raised more than US$6,100 on her GoFundMe page which she says will be used for legal fees, funds for him to use at the prison commissary, and, one day, for a trip to China that she hopes to take if Mark is transferred to a facility where inmates are allowed to receive outside visitors. 

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On a recent August morning, Swidan began her usual daily routine of coffee and prayer. She went onto her patio to thank God for the cool morning and to ask for mercy.

“Not for me. I don’t care what happens to me,” she said. “But on my son and those with him.” 

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After reciting her Hail Marys with her rosary, she logged onto her social media accounts devoted to Mark and her GoFundMe page. Variations of the moniker mama sparkles are some of her usernames. She does not own a laptop, so it’s all done through her mobile phone. 

She pours herself into these slivers of the online world. Lately, she is not getting much in return. 

“People just ‘like’ the page and then they move on,” Swidan said. “Even if people say, ‘You’re in my prayers,’ they move on to something else. Because sometimes people say that to relieve themselves from the responsibility to help.”

She is frustrated by the lack of public outcry and political will to tackle his case, particularly from the government. “I have to get President Trump‘s attention,” said Swidan, adding that she gets very little in the way of information from the State Department.

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Mark Swidan when he was a child. Katherine Swidan

She pointed to the recent case of American rapper A$AP Rocky, who was arrested and detained in Sweden last month on assault charges. The case drew the attention of President Donald Trump, amid pressure from high-profile celebrities, who called on Sweden to send the rapper home. Last week, a special envoy who normally works on hostage matters was sent to Stockholm from the U.S. to monitor the court proceedings. The rapper was subsequently freed from jail and allowed to return home pending the verdict.

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“I’m not a celebrity, I don’t know any celebrities. Why is my son any different?” Swidan said. “Why should President Trump only pay attention to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, these people who want action done?”

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“He doesn’t do that for a simple American woman who has been begging him since he came into office, and Obama when he was in office.”

The U.S. State Department did not make anyone available for an interview with Global News regarding Mark’s case, but a spokesperson wrote in an email that “U.S. consular officers have been providing all appropriate consular services. We have visited him monthly since his arrest and will continue to visit regularly.”

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Swidan used to be able to talk on the phone to Mark, she says, but their communication has now been limited to letters and drawings, which are delivered to her sporadically through the U.S. Consulate. She recently received a package with more than 100 of his drawings and letters, all of which were created before his death sentence. Some are three year old. 

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Much of his art shares a religious — specifically Catholic — motif. One, shared by Swidan on Facebook, shows the Virgin Mary with an anxious expression, hands in prayer, surrounded by both angels and skeletal demons. One entitled Box of Broken Hearts” shows a chest overflowing with crosses and pieces of hearts. Phrases including “Mark,” “Marriage,” and “Faith” are written along the side.

Artwork by Mark Swidan from prison in China. Katherine Swidan

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John Kamm pointed to the nature of the charge faced by Mark as a potential reason why the case has not been receiving the attention he thinks it deserves.

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There are [crimes] that if one is accused of, the presumption of innocence sort of goes away,” he said. Drugs is one of them.

“There’s been some outcry but not enough,” he said. “A big reason is that people look at the charge and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get involved.’ And that’s really tragic because, in this case, the evidence is so weak and circumstantial.”

Kamm says he will be meeting with Chinese officials next week in San Francisco to discuss Mark’s case. 

“It would be great if the sentence was overturned and he was found not guilty. The chance of that is is very low,” Kamm said. “What I realistically hope for is a reduction of the sentence, a new sentence to a fixed term, not life. Now that can be done. I think it’s the best we can hope for.

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Kamm said he is in the middle of writing a newsletter with updates on his cases, including the successes and failures.

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“I’m writing a long account of the execution of a man whose daughters are EU citizens, and the fight to save his life, which failed,” he said. “That was really rough, getting the phone call from the family telling me he’d been executed in China.”

“It really had a big impact on me. There are some things you can’t walk away from.”

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