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As US works to bring Brittney Griner home, a Luling mother has been missing her son for 10 years

Mark Swidan has been held captive in China for a decade on drug charges. He could possibly lose his life.

LULING, Texas — In Washington, D.C., this week, lawmakers are working to try and get wrongfully detained Americans out of foreign countries.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order to sanction criminals, terrorists and government officials who hold Americans captive abroad, and the U.S. Senate approved a resolution calling for Brittney Griner's release. The WNBA star has been a Russian prisoner for 155 days on marijuana charges. 

While her case has been very high profile, there's another case involving a Texas businessman that most have never heard about. Mark Swidan has been held in a Chinese prison for almost 10 years. His mother fears that she won't live long enough to see her son come home.

In the small town of Luling, Texas, a mother's love never wavers. Inside her tiny apartment, Katherine Swidan lives surrounded by memories of happier times with her youngest son, Mark.

"I remember him at five or six years old. If he heard the national anthem in the game or something, he was the first one to stand up," she said. "He's a fantastic photographer, artist, he designs homes, he designs jewelry."

She slowly went through all of Mark's things that's she's kept, all while waiting for him to come home.

"I had to keep his clothes," she said. "These are his golfing hats, photography equipment like lenses and things."

It's been almost 10 years since Katherine Swidan has seen her son in person.

The last time the Chinese government let her speak to Mark Swidan was a 5-minute phone conversation in 2018.

"I don't even remember what I said. I just remember hearing his voice," she said.

She treasures a large box filled with old artwork and letters Mark Swidan was allowed to send home. It also holds letters she's gotten from lawmakers, the U.S. Ambassador to China and the State Department.

"This is from Sen. [John] Cornyn in 2017, and I can't get a hold of him now, so I just gave up on him," she said, adding that she's tired of waiting in vain for the government to help her son.

In 2012, Mark Swidan was in China on a business trip, buying flooring and fixtures. He was arrested and detained after officials accused him of buying and selling drugs. Mark Swidan lost his fiancée, his freedom and could possibly lose his life.

"He's never confessed through all the torture, the starvation," Katherine Swidan said.

A Chinese court gave Mark Swidan the death penalty. And while that's been delayed, his torturous detention continues.

"I'm already 72. I cannot ... I cannot die without seeing his face again," Katherine Swidan said with tears in her eyes. "I don't want his legacy to be just a box of stuff. And if he does come back and I'm not here, I want him to know that I ... I did everything I could possibly do."

Swidan isn't alone. A mural unveiled in D.C. this week displays Mark's face, along with 17 other Americans who are currently being held by foreign governments.

There's no official figure for how many Americans are being held overseas, but human rights groups estimate there are at least 60 U.S. citizens being wrongfully detained in about 18 countries around the world.

Attorney Jason I. Poblete is president of the Global Liberty Alliance, which helps defend people whose fundamental rights are violated by authoritarian governments.

"When you travel around the world and you're caught in a legal system that's not the best, in some cases substandard, these things can happen," he said. "And then there's this big shock: Is America coming to help me? Well, guess what? They're not. In most cases, it takes a while."

Poblete said the torture Mark Swidan is going through locked away in a Chinese prison is truly inhumane.

"This man has not slept in a dark room in almost 10 years, they have not turned the lights off," he said. "He has been kept in a very small cell. He has been forced and subjected to extreme psychological pressure and pains."

Poblete hopes that as more and more people hear about the Swidans' case, the wheels of justice will start to turn faster, and his case will be made a priority.

"In Mark's case, it's frankly baffling why this man has been in that facility for almost 10 years ... the U.S. government has failed Mr. Swidan," he said.

Right now, all Katherine Swidan can do is worry and wait, and she continues to pray someone will step forward and do what they can to bring her son home before it's too late.

"The worst-case scenario is that people in the government just ignore what I'm saying, and they keep having meetings, meetings, meetings, and then Mark dies in the interim," she said. "You know, I don't know everything that goes on secretly in the government. I don't want to know. I just want Mark to come home."

Earlier this month, Katherine Swidan received a letter from Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Ambassador to China. In it, he wrote that getting Mark Swidan released is a "top priority" to the Embassy, the State Department and the White House. He also wrote that embassy officials recently tried to visit the prison where Mark Swidan is being held but were denied due to COVID-19 protocols.

KVUE reached out to Sen. John Cornyn's office about Mark Swidan's case as well. A spokesperson told us, "Senator Cornyn's office made contact with federal agencies on his behalf and shared those updates with his family. Sen. Cornyn's office is committed to working with all Texans in need of assistance."


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