The Execution of Edgar Tamayo Arias

Yesterday at 9:32 p.m. CT, Mexican national Edgar Tamayo Arias was executed by the state of Texas. Convicted of murdering a policeman, 46-year-old Tamayo received very little sympathy for the crime that he very well may have committed. What has evoked public condemnation though is the fact that the state of Texas denied him an essential right due to any foreign national arrested or detained outside their country, the ability to communicate with and have access to their consulate back home.

Tamayo's case was brought to my attention because I know from first hand experience the importance of this right. I was illegally detained by the Iranian government -- alongside my companions Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal -- from 2009 to 2010. Looking back on my 410 days of captivity, it was the feeling of utter and complete isolation that was hardest to bear. I didn't speak a word of Farsi and knew nothing about the local legal system. Past and future soon dissolved into a succession of featureless days, punctuated by long hours of sheer panic. What will happen to us, I kept thinking through the long nights, and will they ever let us out? Just as devastating was the isolation that our families felt, who waited for nearly 6 months for the telephone to ring and bring news about our health and welfare.

At excruciatingly rare moments, the grayness of our existence was lifted by a consular visit from the Swiss Embassy, who acted as our consular representative in the absence of an American Embassy in Iran. As the harsh Iranian winter descended on the prison, twice the Swiss ambassador Livia Leu Agosti and her staff were allowed to bring us warm clothes, books and messages from home to revive our flagging spirits. It was Swiss and Omani diplomats who obtained grudging permission for our mothers to visit us in Tehran, more than two hundred days into our captivity. Hungering for any kind of friendly human contact, we often wondered why those lifesaving consular encounters were so infrequent and so brief.

After my release I learned that the U.S. government had been demanding ongoing consular access from the earliest days of our detention, a right that every American abroad is entitled to under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Our families had also appealed repeatedly to the Iranian authorities for regular consular visits, so that they would at least know we were alive and well. I also learned that the Iranian Foreign Ministry had justified its refusal to allow more frequent consular contact by accusing the United States of violating the Vienna Convention rights of detained Iranians.

That war of words continued as we fought to secure the release of Shane and Josh, with Foreign Ministry officials openly charging that many Iranians in U.S. prisons have neither consular access nor contact with their families. It hardly matters whether those accusations were valid or not: the United States' poor track record of Vienna Convention violations is so well known and so widespread that it made Iran's own flouting of the treaty seem defensible.

This is what happens when the United States reneges on its treaty obligations and then refuses to provide a meaningful remedy, not even in death penalty cases. No one denies that the Mexican consulate was prevented by the Vienna Convention violation from assisting Tamayo in preparing his trial defense. It's equally clear that persuasive evidence has since emerged about his brain damage and mental retardation, evidence that no court has considered. Mexico, other concerned nations and Secretary of State John Kerry all urged Texas to hold a hearing that would determine if the denial of consular involvement undermined the fairness of Mr. Tamayo's trial, but Texas authorities refused even this simple and sensible remedy for their own admitted failure.

Each time we execute a foreign national whose consular rights were stripped away, the bonds of mutual trust between nations are loosened and the delicate fabric of international cooperation unravels a little more. Each time we shirk our responsibility to make things right, the freedom and safety of Americans abroad becomes a little more endangered. Never think for a moment that the threat to U.S. citizens imprisoned overseas is just a rhetorical talking point, or that Texas can continue its defiance of civilized conduct without consequences. There is nothing hypothetical about the risk of retaliation. I know. It happened to me.