Families of American Hostages Abroad Find Power—and Solace—in Numbers

Families of American Hostages Abroad Find Power—and Solace—in Numbers

One week after his son, Trevor, was released from Russian detention in a dramatic prisoner exchange, Joey Reed was back in Washington rallying to help other families through the nightmare that his family just escaped.

Reed joined dozens of other family members and supporters of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad, demonstrating in front of the White House in Washington on Wednesday to raise awareness for their families’ plights and pressure the Biden administration to pull whatever diplomatic and political strings it could to bring their loved ones home.

“Just because we’ve accomplished our part of it doesn’t mean, ‘OK, see you later,’” Reed told Foreign Policy during the rally. “We feel attached to these people now, and it’s our obligation to continue working for everyone else’s families.” Reed and other family members of American hostages abroad said the rally will be the first of many coordinated gatherings in a new coordinated effort they call the “Bring Our Families Home Campaign.” It’s a shift to collective, rather than individual, fights to repatriate Americans imprisoned abroad.

One week after his son, Trevor, was released from Russian detention in a dramatic prisoner exchange, Joey Reed was back in Washington rallying to help other families through the nightmare that his family just escaped.

Reed joined dozens of other family members and supporters of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad, demonstrating in front of the White House in Washington on Wednesday to raise awareness for their families’ plights and pressure the Biden administration to pull whatever diplomatic and political strings it could to bring their loved ones home.

“Just because we’ve accomplished our part of it doesn’t mean, ‘OK, see you later,’” Reed told Foreign Policy during the rally. “We feel attached to these people now, and it’s our obligation to continue working for everyone else’s families.” Reed and other family members of American hostages abroad said the rally will be the first of many coordinated gatherings in a new coordinated effort they call the “Bring Our Families Home Campaign.” It’s a shift to collective, rather than individual, fights to repatriate Americans imprisoned abroad.

“This is rather new, at least for us. The idea that we have to bring our voices together and to advocate as a lobby for hostages is I think really new and important,” said Neda Shargi. Her brother, Emad Shargi, an American Iranian businessman, has been detained in Iran since April 2018, and in 2020 was sentenced without trial to 10 years imprisonment on falsified espionage charges.

The campaign is aimed at pressuring the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers to ramp up their efforts to secure the release of family members imprisoned abroad as quickly as possible. In nearly all cases, the Americans were detained on false charges by autocratic governments that view Washington as an adversary—in places like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea—and try to use the imprisoned Americans as geopolitical pawns. There are roughly 55 American citizens or legal permanent residents that the U.S. government classifies as hostages or unlawfully detained, according to a statement from the campaign.

The latest American classified as “wrongfully detained” is Brittney Griner, an American basketball player arrested at a Russian airport in February. Russian officials accused her of carrying vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. Earlier this week, the State Department said that it had determined that Griner had been wrongfully detained.

While foreign governments have the right to detain U.S. citizens who really do break laws, the State Department’s finding that the charges against Griner are bogus will enable the Biden administration to mount a more muscular response as it seeks her safe return to the United States. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens is now expected to spearhead efforts to secure her release. A spokesperson for Bill Richardson, a former senior U.S. diplomat and New Mexico governor who has long been involved in efforts to free Americans wrongly imprisoned overseas, confirmed that Richardson is also working on behalf of Grinner’s family to secure her release.

The new campaign has a clear goal, but it’s also morphing into a support network. Through no choice of their own, the families have been thrust into a small and unenviable club. Virtually overnight, they are forced to table their day-to-day lives and start lobbying for meetings with high-level government officials and campaigning for media attention to keep their detained family members in the public spotlight.

“We don’t know how to act, we’re just regular people,” said Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, an American and former Marine detained in Russia since late 2018 on ginned-up espionage charges. “This crazy scenario that we have no control over is playing out and you’re seeing us in real time react to some of the worst days of our lives.”

Reed, speaking alongside his daughter, Taylor, said there was an “instant connection” between the families, even for those who hadn’t met before Wednesday’s rally. “When you’re in hard situations with other people, you have a camaraderie with them,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a foreign government or your own government, you feel alone and helpless.”

The U.S. government in 2015 established a special envoy for hostage affairs, run out of the State Department, to coordinate U.S. efforts to secure the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad and support their family members.

Top Biden administration officials say securing the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad is among their most important foreign-policy priorities. The Reed family met with President Joe Biden in the run-up to Trevor’s release from prison. Elizabeth Whelan said she met with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, on Wednesday morning and had a phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday to discuss her brother’s case. Still, the family members of Americans detained abroad in Venezuela and Iran were critical of the Biden administration, arguing at the rally that it is not doing enough to pressure foreign governments to release their relatives. Some say they have tried repeatedly to get a meeting with Biden during his year and a half in office to discuss their family’s case, to no avail.

“We are doing everything we can, almost all of it unseen, almost all of it unsaid in public, to do everything we can to advance the commitment that President Biden has to see these Americans who are wrongfully or unjustly detained around the world or in some cases held hostage around the world brought home,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a press briefing on Wednesday. The State Department did not respond to an additional request for comment.

Joey and Taylor Reed were some of the only people who could attend Wednesday’s rally with good news. Joey’s son, Trevor, a U.S. Marine veteran who was first detained in Russia in 2019, was released as part of a prisoner swap with Moscow last week. He was exchanged for Russian citizen ​​Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in the United States for conspiring to bring over $100 million worth of cocaine into the United States. The swap, which took place in Turkey, happened against the backdrop of the worst period in U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, as tensions soar over Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. Reed’s release offered a glimmer of hope for other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia and elsewhere in the world.

“Any hostage that comes home gives us hope,” Shargi said. “The fact that it was doable [with Trevor Reed] means they’re able to bring every single one of the hostages home.”

While Reed is recovering, he asked his family to continue to raise awareness for other Americans detained abroad, including Paul Whelan in Russia. Jonathan Franks, the lawyer for the Reed family through their ordeal, said Trevor was “devastated” to learn that Paul Whelan wasn’t released alongside him during the prisoner exchange: “His only ask of me is to make sure we are loudly continuing the campaign for Paul, and helping Paul get out.”

U.S. officials stressed that their negotiations with Moscow on Reed’s release did not include any negotiations on other matters in U.S.-Russia relations, such as U.S. policy toward the war in Ukraine. The families are hoping that the Biden administration can emulate the success in Reed’s case by offering Moscow other possible prisoner exchanges to bring home Whelan and Griner.

Elizabeth Whelan said the news of Reed being released without Paul was bittersweet, but she said she was thankful for the Reed’s continued support in her family’s campaign.

“One person comes home and others can’t. We still have to celebrate every single win,” she said. “I had a bit of a hard time celebrating, but my heart is with the Reeds.”

The post Families of American Hostages Abroad Find Power—and Solace—in Numbers appeared first on Foreign Policy.

Last Update: Thu, 05 May 22 15:48:09