February 17, 2020

The threat of unwarranted detentions should be considered in all kidnap for ransom or extortion (KRE) policies. An unwarranted, or otherwise known as unlawful, detention includes the detainment of an individual with no due process or evidence they committed a crime. Some detentions can be motivated less by financial reasons and more by wanting to improve their success in the negotiation process. Unlawful detention cases can also include borderline (or outright) extortion, where a victim’s detention ‘ensures’ their cooperation in negotiations. Some cultures that practice these ‘detentions’ see it as a legitimate and traditional negotiating tactic in many locations worldwide.

The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) indicates that the threats of unwarranted detention are generally higher in high-threat kidnap locations as they also have weak law enforcement and weak rule of law. Unwarranted detentions of foreign nationals over business disputes arguably pose a more credible threat than traditional kidnapping in China and most other Asian countries. Criminals often detain or prevent individuals from leaving work or their hotel in order to settle commercial disputes and business disagreements, especially in regions where law enforcement is weak or with high levels of corruption.

The best way to understand the different types of unwarranted detention is to look at real-world situations. In this blog, I'll address 3 of the principal scenarios that can involve private citizens, public officials, corrupt officials, and state actors. The common thread of these situations is a lack of reasonable suspicion of an offense, no justification, no evidence or fabricated evidence, or a corrupt/political intent. 


Scenario 1: Local Workers Detain Staff On-site

The most benign example is local workers detaining staff or managers on-site or in staff accommodations. Although this detention scenario can also be referred to as a kidnap, as demands are being made, the motive for detention, in this case, is not normally malicious and the safe return of the detainee upon settlement is almost guaranteed. This scenario is generally best dealt with as a more straightforward negotiation, with the primary goal of safely returning the detainee. In most cases this will resolve the dispute as to the goal for improved working conditions or pay (which are often justified) is a legitimate business negotiation as opposed to a traditional kidnap. In order to avoid this scenario, Western companies should understand the working conditions and rewards for foreign workers, and ensure they are properly monitored for corruption or harsh treatment by local managers.


Scenario 2: Detentions Used to Settle Commercial Disputes

The second scenario is detentions used as a mechanism to settle commercial disputes and business disagreements. This can be used when aggrieved parties feel they have little access to legal recourse due to high levels of official corruption. Local courts are sometimes used to provide some semblance of lawful authority over the dispute and detention. Western business owners have been particularly vulnerable to this approach in much of Asia and Latin America.

The corrupt involvement of local courts indicates a more menacing type of detention as it involves high levels of corruption, this includes local courts/local authorities providing some form of ‘legal’ justification for the detention. Western business personnel are especially vulnerable to this form of detention as local business owners and their employees know the language, the law and often have ready access to corrupt officials. This can only be resolved through negotiation using specialist lawyers and can be costly in financial or concession terms to the Western interest. Most disputes are settled without physical harm to the detainee.


Scenario 3: State Actors Unlawfully Influence the Outcome of an International Issue

The third is state actors deliberately attempting to influence the outcome of an international trade issue, international sanctions, a major conflict, or other disputes by unlawfully detaining dual citizens and Western business owners and travelers. Journalists are also targeted, often on the basis of their perceived ideological bias or affiliation with a broadcaster. The intention here is malicious, deliberate, and targets particular nationalities or interests. This threat is particularly prevalent where there is ongoing low-level conflict or other significant disputes, including religious, sectarian, or tribal conflict, or where the government is military-based rather than civilian-based. This scenario also has the greatest threat of serious injury or death.


Individuals at Risk for Unlawful Detentions

Members of the local community, especially those employed by or having links to Western businesses, face a much higher threat of unlawful detentions by organized crime groups, security forces, or paramilitary groups when compared to foreign nationals. Data suggests that locals are abducted in more than 90 percent of detentions compared to less than 10 percent for foreign business travelers. The risk for foreign nationals only increases if they are based in the country for an extended duration or are visiting to ‘settle’ a business dispute.

Incidents involving unwarranted detention at the hands of state or non-state armed groups are the most dangerous and can be extremely difficult to resolve, as a genuine negotiation may not be possible. Victims are mostly opposition politicians, journalists, and local activists who are detained, but foreign travelers are also held on ‘espionage’ charges. In these cases, there may be little difference between such a detention and a traditional kidnap. This is often the case in areas where regime change, a political uprising, or low-level conflict is underway, and the official designation of ‘lawful authority’ can be blurred.



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WorldAware provides intelligence-driven, integrated risk management solutions that enable multinational organizations to operate globally with confidence. WorldAware’s professional Kidnap for Ransom and Extortion (KRE) risk mitigation services significantly reduce risks to your organization, personnel, and their families, allowing you to rest assured that if an incident occurs we can provide on-the-ground response services for KRE, piracy, wrongful detention, child abduction, and stalking incidents.