Mother of U.S. citizen wrongfully detained in China fears he may take his life

Washington — The mother of Mark Swidan, a Texas businessman who has been wrongfully detained in China, said she fears he may take his own life after more than a decade behind bars. 

“We are very concerned and afraid that Mark will end his life,” Katherine Swidan recently told CBS News after U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns visited her son at the Chinese detention facility where he is being held. 

A U.S. official confirmed the mid-March visit and said the U.S. has been concerned about Mark Swidan’s state for some time. Burns told Mark Swidan that he hopes to take him home the next time he visits, according to Katherine Swidan, who said she spoke to her son by phone in March for the first time in six years. 

She said her son believes the U.S. is sugarcoating the conditions of his detention. 

“It is 10 times worse,” he said, according to his mother. “Biden must act to release me now.”

Mark Swidan has been languishing in a Chinese prison since his arrest in 2012 on narcotics trafficking charges, which he denies. He was visiting China to buy flooring and furniture, according to his mother. But he was not in the country at the time of the alleged offenses, according to a review of his case by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. 

A Chinese court upheld his death sentence in 2023, with a two-year reprieve. The State Department objected to the ruling, saying it was “disappointed by this decision” and would “continue to press for his immediate release and return to the United States.” 

His family and supporters have long worried about his ailing health, saying he’s undergone torture, including having both hands broken and his kneecaps forcibly dislocated. He has also said he’s lost more than 120 pounds. Mark Swidan has detailed his conditions in letters to his mother.

“His leg is so swollen that they may not be able to get the brace off his leg without cutting it off,” Katherine Swidan said in February during a news conference with the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, which advocates for the release of wrongfully detained Americans. “He’s ill. He’s eating only bread every day.”

The State Department considers Mark Swidan and two other Americans — Long Island businessman Kai Li and California pastor David Lin — to be wrongfully detained in China, a rare designation that puts the full force of the U.S. government behind securing his release. There are dozens of wrongfully detained Americans in countries around the world, including Russia, China and Afghanistan. 

President Biden called for the release of the wrongfully detained Americans during a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, according to White House spokesman John Kirby.

“The president also repeated his call for China to release U.S. citizens who are wrongfully detained or under exit bans,” Kirby said at the White House press briefing.

It was the first time the two leaders have talked since they met at a high-stakes summit in California last November amid rising tensions between the two countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen are expected to continue high-level talks between the countries during separate visits to China in the coming weeks.

Katherine Swidan said in February that she was becoming increasingly “fed up” with the government’s inability to secure her son’s release and was “working with lawyers to explore all options.”

“I’m convinced that they will let him die and then it’ll be over. They won’t have to worry about it,” she said. “It’s coming to that point where they need to be held responsible, and I’m the one to do it. So I have no fear.”