US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order that aims “to deter and disrupt hostage-taking and wrongful detentions” of Americans abroad, opening the way for sanctions and other deterrence measures to be imposed.
The White House said on Tuesday that the order will allow relevant United States government agencies to impose financial sanctions on those directly or indirectly involved in hostage-taking or wrongful detentions.
It also directed government departments to bolster engagement and share relevant information with families about the status of their loved ones and US efforts to secure their release or return.
“Hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of United States nationals are heinous acts that undermine the rule of law,” Biden said in a separate statement to Congress, announcing the executive order had been signed.
“I have determined that hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of United States nationals abroad constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
The move came weeks after US basketball star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia on drug possession charges that carry a 10-year-maximum prison sentence, appealed directly to Biden to do everything in his power to bring her home.
The Biden administration has said Griner’s case remains a priority and top officials have said they believe the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist is being wrongfully detained.
The US does not provide an official figure for how many of its citizens are detained abroad.
But the James W Foley Legacy Foundation, named after an American journalist abducted and killed in Syria, says that more than 60 US citizens are wrongfully detained in about 18 countries, including Iran, Russia, Venezuela and China.
Biden is “committed to getting all these cases resolved and … at the same time, start to bring up a deterrence strategy that can raise the cost of hostage-taking and wrongful detention”, a senior administration official said in a call with reporters on Monday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that the new sanctions authority will allow the US “to impose financial and travel sanctions on those who are responsible for unjustly holding US nationals, whether their captor is a terrorist network or a state actor”.
The US Department of State will also introduce a new “risk indicator” – the “D” indicator – to its travel advisories to warn US citizens of the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government, Blinken said.
On Tuesday, six countries – Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela – will receive the warning, the Reuters news agency reported.
“We are adding this indicator to highlight the elevated risk of wrongful detention in particular countries that have regularly engaged in this practice,” Blinken said in a statement.
The Foley Foundation has said countries wrongfully holding Americans include Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Yemen.
Russia’s release in April of former US Marine Trevor Reed has intensified calls by the relatives of others held overseas for Biden to act.
Reed was freed after three years of detention as part of a prisoner swap with Moscow in which Washington commuted the US sentence of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post columnist and Iranian-American who was released from detention in Iran in a 2016 prisoner swap deal, welcomed Biden’s executive order as “an important — if incremental step — in the government’s slow response to a dangerous, and worsening, challenge”.
“As a hostage survivor and the subject of a high-profile campaign for my release, I understand the incredible burden placed on those fighting to get the US government to work on their behalf,” Rezaian wrote in the Post on Tuesday.
“What I understood was that, while the detention is rarely personal, the impact it has on family members and entire communities is profoundly devastating. By declaring wrongful detention and hostage-taking an urgent national priority, Biden made an important commitment to listen and stand with those who, while deeply affected, continue to fight for the freedom and well-being of their loved ones.”
This is an important step, but it's part of a much longer process.
— Jason Rezaian (@jrezaian) July 19, 2022