What to do about the uptick in Americans unjustly detained abroad
“Mher husband Ryan has been wrongfully held by the Taliban in deplorable and inhumane conditions for 461 days,” Anna Corbett told a congressional committee in November. “His crime: to US a citizen of Afghanistan.” For years Mr Corbett had run a microfinance and consultancy firm to help Afghan businesses, but his family fled the country when Western forces withdrew in 2021. He had hoped to continue his work under the regime Taliban, but authorities arrested him when they visited him in August 2022.
Only Mrs. Corbett has spoken publicly, but at least six Americans have been detained in Afghanistan, according to a Republican congressional aide. Dozens of Americans are held hostage by other hostile nations, although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain. A wrongful arrest can be difficult to explain, and some cases are kept quiet to help release.
The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which works on behalf of Americans wrongfully detained abroad, estimates that 64 hostile and wrongful detention cases have been made public. Twenty-one Americans were released in 2022, but recently some of those who are watching the case closely have noticed an increase in arrests. No wonder: they can be lucrative bargaining chips.
Bringing wrongfully detained Americans home is an admirable, bipartisan goal, but it risks encouraging overly generous terms to detain more people. Venezuela has sought sanctions relief. Other rogue states see a way to earn hard cash. The Taliban are demanding the release of an Afghan held at Guantánamo Bay who America considers a threat to national security.
The Biden administration swapped Brittney Griner, a basketball star detained in Russia for possessing some cannabis oil, for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to attack a terrorist group. help and kill Americans. In September the US and Iran agreed to illegally exchange five Americans detained in Tehran for five Iranians accused of sanctions violations among other crimes. America also agreed to release $6bn in Iranian funds, but refused after the Hamas attack on Israel in October.
How much to give is a difficult question, and die-hards argue that sticks are at least better than carrots. “Some in the Biden administration have treated the Afghanistan issue as complicating their policy priority of befriending and legitimizing the Taliban,” said Michael McCaul, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “I am concerned that the Taliban continue to entertain America because they have never been held accountable.”
China, Iran, Russia and Venezuela are the most advanced bad actors, according to a report published in September by the Foley Foundation. It is no coincidence that they are all autocratic regimes that maintain bad relations with America, where the rule of law prevents retaliatory arrest. But sanctions, diplomatic isolation and other offensive actions could send a message that containing Americans comes at a price rather than a reward.
The disclosure of some Americans also raises questions about which ones are being left out and why. Paul Whelan, wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly five years, was understandably disappointed after the famous athlete was released after less than a year behind bars. Some families of Americans detained in China are finding the situation particularly difficult. “I’ve heard excuses from people in government saying, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, it is US– The China relationship is complex.’ I think that’s a cop-out,” said Harrison Li, whose father Kai has been detained since 2016. “The administration has taken Americans out of countries because they’re not even We have no consulate or formal diplomatic relations with him.”
Katherine Swidan’s son, Mark, has been detained in China since 2012. In April, a court upheld the death sentence for drug trafficking despite America considering his wrongful arrest. His mother expressed her regret that Joe Biden forgot his case during a recent meeting with Xi Jinping. “I’m crying and I’m praying out loud,” she says. “Now I’m tired.” ■
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