They are among nearly 50 Americans the State Department believes are being illegally detained by foreign governments. At least a dozen more Americans are being held hostage, including by extremist groups, or on criminal charges disputed by their families.
American citizens are becoming increasingly attractive targets for US adversaries, including China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela, who want to use them as political pawns in battles with the United States.
RS. Griner, professional basketball player, perhaps the loudest American to fall into the trap of what the State Department called questionable allegations. She was detained in February at an airport near Moscow after authorities said they found hash oil in her luggage. Her arrest came just days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, which is being armed by the United States and its allies.
Last weekJake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, said the Biden administration will continue to work to make sure Ms Greener, Paul Whelan – another American hero of Moscow – and “all unfairly detained Americans and hostages returned home safely.”
Here is a look at “wrongful detentions” as they are known, and some of the struggles of Americans detained abroad.
What does “wrongly detained” mean?
Generally, an American detained by a foreign government for the purpose of influencing US policy or obtaining political or economic concessions from Washington is considered “wrongfully detained.” In these cases, negotiations between the United States and the other government are the key to securing the freedom of Americans.
The State Department does not disclose the exact number of Americans it has determined fall into this category. But a senior State Department official said there were between 40 and 50 wrongfully detained Americans abroad.
“Hostage” is a general term used to describe Americans who have not been allowed to leave a foreign country. Some of them are held by terrorist organizations or other groups with which the State Department does not have diplomatic relations. In these cases, the FBI and other intelligence or law enforcement agencies negotiate.
Named after a journalist killed in Syria by Islamic State militants in 2014, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, 64 Americans illegally detained abroad or taken hostage.
What you need to know about the detention of Britney Griner in Russia
How long were some of the Americans detained?
Wrongful detention can last for days or weeks, or it can last for years. One of the most detained Americans Mr Theis, a freelance journalist captured in Syria in 2012. US officials believe he is being held by the Syrian government, which denies this.
In an interview with CBS News On Wednesday, Tice’s parents urged the Biden administration to meet with Syrian government officials, despite the fact that diplomatic relations between the two countries have been officially suspended since 2012. “This is what will bring Austin home,” said his mother, Debra Theis. President Biden met Mr. Tais’s parents in May and vowed to “use every opportunity available” to secure his release, according to a White House statement.
Siamak Namazi, an American detained in Iran, said last month that the Iranian government would apparently only release him and his other captives, including his father, if the Biden administration offered “sufficient incentives.”
“It looks like Tehran is demanding more for our release than the White House can handle,” he said. Namazi, who has been in Iranian custody since 2015. wrote in a guest essay for the New York Times.
What is the State Department doing to free them?
The State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs is negotiating for illegally detained Americans.
In recent years, the office has grown to about 25 negotiators and other officials, up from five, as foreign governments detain more Americans. An expert from the country where the person is being held is appointed for each case.
The process is extremely complex, a senior State Department official said, on the condition that his name not be used to describe some of the office’s functions.
All the foreign governments that detain Americans have an uneasy relationship with the United States at best. In some cases, such as in Iran, messages are sent through other governments acting as intermediaries; in others, US officials work through levels of foreign government bureaucracy to contact someone high enough to influence a decision.
The messages are intended to amplify the impact of the ongoing American captivity, the official said.
He said that foreign governments often felt like they were the victim and usually started out with what he called unfounded demands.
The State Department does not provide legal assistance to detained Americans or their families.
Is the United States paying a ransom or exchanging prisoners?
Directive 2015 President Barack Obama forbids promising “ransoms, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other concessions” to bring American detainees home. The paper notes that this policy deprives the hostage-takers of a key incentive to detain Americans and prevents the exchange of US revenue or other resources that could be used for other nefarious activities.
But there have been numerous prisoner exchanges with foreign governments for the release of detained Americans – most recently. Trevor Reed, who spent two years in Russia before his release in April. At the same time, as part of the negotiations, a Russian pilot was released, who was imprisoned in the United States on charges of dealing cocaine.
mr. While in prison, Reed contracted tuberculosis, making his case all the more urgent.
Similarly, US officials at the end of last month tried to convince the Venezuelan government to release Matthew Heath from an underground prison cell on humanitarian grounds after his family claimed he had tried to kill himself. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro refused, although he freed two other Americans in March.
The fate of Britney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star spent several months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hash oil into the country.
Iran holds Mr. Namazi and three other Americans while Tehran negotiates with world powers to limit its nuclear program. Chief US negotiator Robert Malley said that the fate of the detained Americans is not directly related to the negotiations.
“But I will say that it is very difficult for us to imagine going back to a nuclear deal with four innocent Americans being held hostage by Iran,” he said. told Reuters in January.
Does public pressure or other publicity help?
In some cases, serious manifestations of public pressure may not help the case, according to a senior State Department official. The fear of provoking an already hostile government is one of the reasons negotiations are being held in secret.
Family members of many wrongfully detained Americans are also wary of discussing the details of cases given to them by the State Department or other officials, partly for security reasons and partly to ensure that the US government does not hide any updates.
But some have created networks of protection to force the US government to negotiate more aggressively and, above all, to make sure their loved ones are not forgotten.
“Every day we wake up knowing that they are suffering much more than we could imagine – so much so that many of them are afraid to wake up at all,” relatives of 19 Americans captured abroad wrote in a letter to Mr. Bid in June.
RS. Griner took advantage of the public attention to her case to ask Mr. Biden to intervene not only on her behalf, but on behalf of other illegally detained Americans.
“I understand that you are dealing with so many problems, but please do not forget about me and other American detainees,” she said. in a handwritten note to the president this month. “Please do your best to bring us home.”
Russia has hinted that it wants to exchange the lady. Griner for Viktor BUTAa former Soviet officer convicted in New York in 2011 for running an international arms smuggling ring.
After Ms Greener pleaded guilty this month to charges of drug possession, claiming she had no intention of breaking the law. Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei A. Ryabkov said that the “hype and publicity” around her detention “creates interference in the truest sense of the word.” . ”
A State Department spokesman said that in some situations, especially when Americans are already well known, public attention can help.
But more often than not, and even when negotiations appear to be deadlocked, officials calmly work through the case, he said.