Locked up abroad

October 6, 2011

The decision to study abroad can be daunting. With single-semester, summer, and yearlong programs in an endless number of exciting, exotic locations, the abundance of study abroad experiences gives students the ability to craft an ideal program that combines fun with enrichment.

Still, I doubt a nearly four-year stint in an Italian prison is on anybody’s shortlist.

The Amanda Knox trial recently captured the attention of media outlets worldwide once again when she was declared “not guilty” after spending four years in Italian jail for murdering British national Meredith Kercher.  As she settles back into her tranquil suburban home west of Seattle, Wash., Knox continues be subjected to intense public scrutiny.

In agreement with her overzealous prosecutor Giuliani Mignini, some Italian tabloids continue to portray Knox as an orgy-obsessed she-devil. For the family of Kercher, Knox’s roommate who was brutally raped and stabbed to death in an Italian villa outside of Perugia, Knox is a cold-blooded killer. In America, Knox has earned the pitiable title of “innocent abroad.” But for Georgetown students looking to study abroad, it’s easy to look at Amanda Knox and see her as something else entirely: a warning.

The similarities are striking enough to warrant comparison to Jack and Jane Hoyas abroad. A young, attractive Italian language student from Washington (the state, not the District) decides to study abroad in a quaint central Italian city, less than a two hour drive from Georgetown’s own Villa Le Balze in Florence. But in Perugia, she finds amazing food, a vibrant culture, a lover, and … a murder?

If prompted, most Georgetown students would be able to give a rough outline of basic American legal rights and could describe in some detail our criminal code. But outside of local liquor laws, most students have no clue about laws in foreign countries, let alone how legal systems actually function. What’s taken for granted as a fundamental legal right or fair punishment in America is irrelevant abroad. In France, unless the punishment for a crime surpasses 10 years or a fine of 75,000 euros, the accused are not tried by a jury of their peers. Throughout Southeast Asia, including Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam, countries prescribe the death penalty for mere possession of certain narcotics, including marijuana (but only in large quantities).

If the Knox case has taught us anything, it’s that justice, at least in a pragmatic sense, is completely relative. The libelous accusations of local media aimed at the jurors of Knox’s first trial would never have been accepted in American court, where shielding jurors from bias is standard. Conversely, the infamous “perp walk” of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in May, a normal facet of the American criminal process, violated the fundamental assumption of innocence until proven guilty from the French point of view.

When abroad and dealing with what can seem like the impossible task of remembering your rights and responsibilities—made even more difficult by your presumed inebriation—there are some simple steps that students can take to protect themselves from this confusing patchwork.

Laura Monarch, Georgetown’s director of overseas studies in the Office of International Programs, advises students who find themselves in any sort of legal trouble while studying abroad to reach out to their on-site emergency contact person and to immediately contact Georgetown’s Department of Public Safety, which remains the primary safety contact for students whether they are on the Hilltop or not. Depending on the country, embassies and consulates can also be a great resource for students who need help navigating foreign justice systems (especially those whose first language isn’t English). It also couldn’t hurt to study up on your destination country’s specific legal code before embarking and review what specific rights suspects of criminal activity can claim.

On a more practical level, though, if you don’t want to get in trouble with the law, don’t break it. At Georgetown it may be cool to get blackout with your roommates and steal a parking meter out from under the nose of DPS, but those kinds of shenanigans aren’t worth the risk while you’re abroad. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a good time, but when it comes to breaking the law, the fine line between a negligible offense and a serious crime can be fuzzier than your memory on a typical Friday night.

So be good. If you’re smart, you’ll have the time of your life. If not, I hope you like your spaghetti on a tin plate slid under a hatch in the door.

Keaton Hoffman
Former Editor-in-Chief of the Voice and "Paper View" Columnist


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