Tiny British territory refuses to release US tourists carrying ammunition

Ryan Watson, pictured arriving on the islands with his wife Valerie, was arrested by airport security who found four rounds of ammunition in his duffel bag when the couple were departing
Ryan Watson, pictured with his wife Valerie, was arrested by airport security who found four rounds of ammunition in his duffel bag when the couple were departing the islands - CBS News

‌A tiny British island territory is embroiled in a diplomatic row with the United States after refusing to release five Americans arrested for carrying ammunition in their holiday luggage.

‌The Turks and Caicos Islands have refused a request to release several tourists who are accused of bringing bullets into the country illegally over the last five months.

‌The island chain is home to less than 50,000 people and known primarily as a holiday destination and tax haven.

‌Under its strict anti-firearms laws, passed in 2022 to deter gang crime, all five American tourists face 12 years in prison if they are convicted.

‌The holidaymakers all live in states where guns can be used legally and claim the rounds were inadvertently left in their bags.

An American delegation met with Dileeni Daniel-Selvaratnam, the territory’s governor and a former Whitehall civil servant, and an official from the Foreign Office on Monday to demand the Americans be released, arguing that their imprisonment is an “unintended consequence” of the gun law.

‌But the islands, which are not part of the UK but are classed as British sovereign territory, have refused to comply with the request because of the “constitutional separation of the executive and legal branches”.

‌The detained Americans include Ryan Watson, who travelled to the islands with his wife and other couples for a joint 40th birthday celebration.

‌As he was leaving the territory, airport security found four rounds of ammunition in a duffel bag he had previously used for a hunting trip.

Bryan Hagerich (left) and Ryan Watson
Bryan Hagerich (left) and Ryan Watson are among the detained tourists - NewsNationNow

‌‌A second tourist, Sharitta Shanise Grier, was visiting the islands for a Mother’s Day trip with her daughter when she was arrested on Thursday.

‌The others have been identified as Michael Evans, of Texas, Bryan Hagerich, of Pennsylvania, and Tyler Wenrich, of Virginia.

Mr Wenrich appeared in court on Tuesday and pleaded guilty to the offence. He will be sentenced on May 28.

Michael Evans of Texas
Michael Evans of Texas - SIGforum
Sharitta Shinese Grier of Florida
Sharitta Shinese Grier of Florida

‌Markwayne Mullin, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who led the delegation, said he hoped to find “common ground” with Ms Daniel-Selvaratnam but was “not able to find a path forward”.

‌“At this point, well-intentioned American citizens are facing a dozen years in prison all for unknowingly having one or two bullets in their luggage,” he said.

‌“The unintended consequences of [Turks and Caicos’s] law have been at the expense of well-intentioned American tourists, including a grandmother, who had no intention of breaking the law.

‌“Should they receive a prison sentence, we will need to consider additional actions to safeguard American citizens.”

‌The delegation included one other senator, John Fetterman, three members of the US House of Representatives and an official from the US State Department.

Interference of US politicians condemned

‌The UK Foreign Office, which is responsible for the islands’ foreign policy, declined to comment, citing ongoing legal action.

‌But Alicia Kearns, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, defended the prosecutions and condemned the interference of American politicians in the islands’ legal affairs.

“I think it’s pretty outrageous that US congressmen think it’s acceptable to fly to a British territory and essentially suggest that they disregard their own laws,” she told The Telegraph.

‌“I don’t think it is unrealistic to expect that when people fly, they should make sure they’re not carrying live ammunition.

“Quite frankly, this isn’t some small territory that congressmen can think they can intimidate and threaten. This is part of the British family.”

‌Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, a former elected premier of Turks and Caicos and president of the Friends of the British Overseas Territory charity, said the islands’ judiciary should not be “weakened by interference or intimidation”.

‌“Turks and Caicos Islands should be admired for its strong system of governance and separation of powers which protects the legitimacy of the Institutions,” she said.

‌“It is a sad situation that seems to be continuing when an easy fix would simply be for travellers to thoroughly check their bags.”