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Our son is a forgotten American hostage suffering in a Russian labor prison

Imagine you spend each day in a foreign country surrounded by people who speak a language you don’t understand.

You work long hours in a factory, not by choice, then return to a room — a small confined space with a hole in the floor for a toilet and bars and guards who ensure you stay there.

You don’t sleep well because the floor is more comfortable than the iron bed.

Your health is in decline.

You had a stroke last fall and the care you receive isn’t “care” at all.

You did nothing that warrants your present circumstances.

You shouldn’t be there.

You are a prisoner convicted of a crime you didn’t commit in a country where justice doesn’t reside.

We describe our son: Jimmy Wilgus, an American citizen and political prisoner of more than six years unjustly held in IK-17, a penal colony in Mordovia, Russia.

Jimmy Wilgus
free jimmy wilgus website

About two dozen Americans are in Russian prisons or penal colonies — repurposed Soviet gulag labor camps built in the 1930s.

Perhaps you’ve heard the names of one or two who have some celebrity.

The rest are memory-holed, unknown or forgotten by all but their immediate family and friends. But they matter, too.

Our son’s tale of injustice began Nov. 7, 2016.

Four men grabbed him on the street, threw him into a car and took him to a Moscow police station.

Police officers
AFP via Getty Images

The police coerced Jimmy into signing a false confession to charges of indecent exposure.

We Americans have trials by juries of peers, are innocent until proven guilty, are guaranteed Miranda rights and have equal justice under law.

Russia is different: The accused must prove their innocence and the conviction rate is 99%.

It recalls what Lavrentiy Beria, the secret police chief, purportedly said of the Soviet justice system: “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.”

An American in Russia is a foreign visitor until imprisoned; then he becomes a commodity to be traded when Russia needs a concession on the world stage.

Vladimir Putin
Getty Images

Jimmy was tried behind closed doors with no jury and no representation from the US Embassy allowed.

When an interpreter tried to translate for him, the court silenced him.

The judge predictably declared him guilty and sentenced him to 12.5 years in a Russian penal colony — a remote, isolated institution designed to break the spirits and wills of prisoners.

We’re proud to say IK-17 has failed to break Jimmy’s spirit and will — but it has destroyed his health.

He now suffers from a spinal issue, osteochondrosis, as well as a failing liver and hypertension that wasn’t present prior to his incarceration.

On Aug. 10 last year, Jimmy collapsed because of a stroke, his left side temporarily paralyzed.

Although granted orders to transfer to a hospital for care, it wasn’t until Aug. 19 that the hospital sent a truck to transport him.

Jimmy’s attorney had to get a court order for an MRI. 

Months have passed.

He still awaits an MRI while his health declines.

This punishing experience for Jimmy and unremitting one for us, his parents, takes a toll.

We are octogenarians who’d rather enjoy our golden years peacefully, but we pray daily for his life and freedom, working tirelessly for his release.

We’re thankful for family, friends and government officials who have helped (though the State Department seems to give more attention to higher-profile cases).

We won’t stop until Jimmy has his health back and is free from this cruel environment.

We love our country and are grateful for the many blessings that citizenship confers on all who proudly call ourselves American.

When we leave our shores, we should be secure in the knowledge that just as our dedication to our country remains so does our country’s dedication to us.

Seeking justice for American citizens should know no borders.

James & Bella Wilgus are Jimmy’s parents.