The Americans Left Behind in Kuwait

Acosta appealed his sentence, and in July 2019, when his day in court finally arrived, he was surprised to be taken into a private room before the hearing. The new judge asked him for the truth. After Acosta again repeated that he had just smoked, the judge informed him that his trafficking charges would be dropped and that he was only going to be punished for using — reducing his life sentence to four years. “I just looked at him, like: What the hell just happened?” Acosta said. Lowe’s sentence was similarly mitigated. Acosta was ecstatic but perplexed about his sudden turn of fortune.

What had happened was that people at the State Department had begun to be questioned about the contractors’ fate. In June 2019, I got in touch with the State Department about Acosta and the other men’s cases, after which it finally began to take discernible actions on their behalf. Between July and November, American officials met with their Kuwaiti counterparts 11 times to discuss the abuse, a result of which was that the Kuwaiti prosecutor general finally agreed to open a new investigation. And about three weeks after my first inquiry, American consular officers saw Morrison for the first time in more than six months and initiated legal steps to bypass his lack of a Privacy Act waiver and get him medical treatment. An American official said that my investigation was raised repeatedly during internal State Department discussions about how to handle the cases. Another individual, who discussed these cases with senior Kuwaiti officials, said, “My impression was that senior Kuwaiti officials, knowing that there would be attention coming, wanted to make sure the weak cases were dismissed, so that if and when the [expletive] hit the fan, they had a defense.”

Furthermore, Bill Richardson, the former ambassador to the United Nations who now runs a nonprofit organization that negotiates the release of Americans held overseas, had become involved. In summer 2019, I sought expert commentary from him, and after learning of the situation, he decided to take up their cases. Through the autumn of 2019 and 2020, he advocated with numerous high-level American and Kuwaiti officials for their release, including personally discussing their cases with the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States several times and eventually speaking with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, after which the American Embassy in Kuwait was increasingly pressured to resolve the issue. The men’s release “would be of mutual interest to both governments,” Richardson argued, and “needs to be handled as a humanitarian issue.”

After Acosta’s trafficking charges were dropped, he was allowed to enter a rehab program that effectively reduced his four-year sentence to just a few months. In early October 2019, Acosta’s cellmates clapped as he hugged everyone goodbye and distributed all his possessions, from his watch to his extra uniforms. The day before he was released, in the hallway connecting the cellblocks, he ran into the Emperor, the supposed American drug dealer at the center of the web of arrests. The Kuwaiti authorities had caught the Emperor with over $3 million worth of drugs, they say, including cocaine, and sentenced him to death. (A representative for the Emperor asked that he remain anonymous for his safety and said that while he did have some marijuana, law enforcement sensationalized his case by portraying him as a bigger trafficker than he was.) Acosta and many of the men believe they were collateral damage in the Kuwaiti police’s search for this man. Was it possible that none of this would have happened if not for him? No matter, they were still both Americans. They hugged. The next day Acosta walked to freedom with a few books and the clothes on his back.

Lowe was also freed around that time, leaving behind at least 11 Americans imprisoned for drug crimes, including Rogers, Morrison, Bailey, Jones, Gabriel Walker, Tyrone Peterson and five others who asked not to be identified. Then, in early 2020, a new American ambassador arrived in Kuwait: Alina Romanowski, a career Middle East hand. Romanowski pushed her Kuwaiti counterparts to sign a prisoner-transfer agreement. On the day that she was sworn in, the embassy sent a diplomatic note demanding that Morrison receive proper psychiatric treatment, hoping that this would lead to a pardon. In February, Morrison was finally transferred to a Kuwaiti psychiatric hospital, and consular officers noted that he was now “smiling” and looked to be “in better physical health,” though his mental-health issues persisted. The embassy logged more actions on his behalf in the first quarter of the year than it had recorded making for him in all of 2017 and 2018 combined.

In June, as the pandemic infiltrated the Central Prison Complex and threatened the lives of the American prisoners, especially Rogers, who has a weakened immune system from a hereditary kidney ailment, Romanowski formally requested the release of all the Americans on health and humanitarian grounds. Through October, however, the Kuwaitis refused to grant it. Ambassador Romanowski said the prisoners’ cases were “very much a high priority” and strenuously denied that race had anything to do with their treatment. But in the give-and-take of diplomacy, whatever the administration was willing to do to free these men has been insufficient — and minuscule compared with what has been done for the likes of Warmbier, Brunson and others. Rogers’s third and final appeal has been denied, and he faces many more years in prison. In September, Morrison was returned from the psychiatric hospital to the Central Prison Complex. Around that time, the Emperor lost his last appeal. There are no more legal barriers to his execution.

I finally met Acosta face to face in early November 2019. During our hours on the phone while he was imprisoned, he seemed to me preternaturally composed. But as he warily scrutinized the other patrons at a cheerful diner near a Virginia naval base, I could see that the experience had exacted a toll. Over brunch, he described the difficulty of putting what had happened behind him. He had recently taken his son trick-or-treating, but when the time came for parting, his son clung to him, shaking. “It wasn’t a normal cry,” Acosta said. “He doesn’t know if he’ll see me again.” Acosta’s goal now was to be there for his son, but he was also considering contracting again, probably in Europe. Lowe, too, was seriously thinking about signing another contract. This time they knew the risks, but the incentives drawing them overseas were just so strong.

As our meal ended, Acosta wondered aloud whether the United States had a place for him, especially after it failed to defend him while he was incarcerated. So many things had combined to make him feel stateless — institutionalized racism, the nation’s forever wars, the offshoring of the middle class, the privatization of the military’s responsibilities to those working for it and an administration unwilling to do much for him and his comrades — it was a question that seemed impossible to succinctly answer. He kept scratching at a fresh wrist tattoo: the name of the grandmother who helped raise him, who died while he was imprisoned. It had become infected. Even after drinking several mimosas, he did not seem to fully relax. If he did stay, he told me, it would only be because of his son. A month in America had already made it clear: Though he didn’t know exactly where home was now, this was no longer it.

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