lexandra Fordseth made eight pilgrimages in Washington over the last four years. She made this trip again from San Diego, where she was able to lobby the White House to release her father and uncle who were detained in Venezuela in November 2017. The U.S. claims that they are facing trumped-up corruption allegations.
Forseth provided support this time. More than a dozen family members of Americans being held hostage or wrongfully detained in Russia, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Iran, and Venezuela gathered outside the White House on May 4 as part of a new “Bring Our Families Home” campaign. They held photos of family members while standing in the rain and requested a meeting to Joe Biden. This would allow them to show that the U.S. president is fully aware of the cases and be serious about their families’ return.
The families believe that the White House has failed to use all the tools at their disposal, and say that Biden’s direct engagement can break the stalemate. “We share a pattern of indecision from our Administration to bring our family members home, and we’re running into the same roadblocks,” Forseth told a small crowd of reporters and supporters. “We all come back from our meetings in D.C. crying on planes, calling [anyone]Who can offer us perspective and insight on the information we have just heard? And we all end up figuring out the same thing: we have to get to President Biden.”
Continue reading: Six Americans are being held in Venezuela and hoping COVID-19 will bring them home.
Trevor Reed was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, who was detained for nearly three decades in a Russian prison on assaulting police charges. He was released after a prisoner trade last week. Joey Reed stated that his son is upset by the ongoing detention of Paul Whelan who, in 2018, was taken into custody in Moscow on suspicion of spying. Trevor Reed demanded his family to come to Washington and stand by those Americans currently being held overseas.
“The reason these things take so long is two things: it’s politics, and then all the debate about how it will lead to more Americans being taken hostage,” Joey Reed said. “Americans are always going to be taken hostage, because of what we represent, and how we’re involved in everybody else’s business.”
According to campaign organizers, at least 16 Americans could be freed by prisoner exchanges. “In some circumstances, that’s the only way we can get our people back,” Joey Reed said. “So it just needs to be something that they consider more often.”
Continue reading: What Trevor Reed Reveals about Joe Biden’s Cautious Approach to Releasing American Hostages.
Reed’s release, as well as Biden’s meeting earlier this week with the family of Austin Tice, an American journalist abducted while reporting in Syria in 2012, has spurred these families to ramp up the pressure. Relatives told TIME they had been inspired by the example set by Reed’s parents, who relentlessly sought a meeting with Biden, waiting for hours in the cold outside the White House as well as outside an event attended by the President in Fort Worth, Tex., before finally getting a meeting in March.
“I have to say, I feel like I’ve met with President Biden and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken,” said the sister of Emad Shargi, an American held in an Iranian prison since 2018, “because I dream at night about being in meetings with them.”
Neda Shargi (sister of Iranian prisoner Emad Shargi) hugs Sam Goodwin, former hostage from Syria, before attending a press conference for families of Americans being wrongfully held overseas or taken hostage in Lafayette Park, Washington, Wednesday May 4, 2022.
These families were born. Following a difficult call last December with Jake Sullivan (White House National Security Adviser), they have been able to come together. “That was the first time that we really felt like we were hearing each other having similar issues with the new Administration,” Forseth told TIME. In follow-up discussions, she says, “we all realized that nothing’s going to happen unless Biden actually decides to make things happen.”
The Biden Administration’s approach has presented a contrast with former President Donald Trump, who relished talking publicly about his track record in bringing Americans home as part of his “America First” foreign policy. The families of detained Americans say they believe Biden is being “sheltered from this issue” and blocked from engaging with them directly. They believe advisers worry the president’s reputation for empathy might lead him to act emotionally in a politically charged context.
According to the White House, its national security unit is in regular contact with families. “We will continue to pursue all avenues, to include engaging anyone, including direct engagement, to secure the return of U.S. hostages and wrongfully detained persons,” a White House official told TIME in a statement. “That said, every case is unique and every case is very difficult, and we understand the frustration and heartache these families feel.”
Continue reading: The U.S. Family: Why they are so proud Biden is becoming increasingly frustrated with hostages overseas.
It is no comfort for their families who are forced to make drastic changes in their lives to help navigate bureaucratic obstacles and lobby lawmakers. “It’s emotionally devastating, it’s financially devastating,” said Everett Rutherford, the uncle of Matthew Heath, a U.S. Marine veteran from Tennessee who was imprisoned in Venezuela in 2020 for charges including “terrorism” and arms trafficking. “We’re frustrated. We’re just normal people who are having to navigate waters we’ve never encountered before.”
“It’s like entering a labyrinth, where you have no idea how to get out,” said Paul Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, as other family members around her nodded. “We need our governments to help us get our loved ones home. It is something families cannot do. We cannot go and talk to these foreign governments.”
Forseth’s father and uncle are two of the so-called “Citgo 6,” American employees of the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, who were detained during a business trip in Nov. 2017. In a gesture of goodwill from Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s President, the group was placed under house arrest in April 2017. In a retaliation for Alex Saab being extradited by the U.S., they were imprisoned again in October. Family members claim that the Citgo 6 remain detained for political purposes. One of them was freed in March after the third high-profile U.S. visit to Caracas.
Forseth was forced to work part-time as an ExxonMobil engineer in Houston for the first year after her uncle and father were detained. This allowed her to manage the bureaucracy, push the cause to the politicians, and deal with diplomatic issues. “If I honestly, truly felt like the White House was diligently bringing up these cases to the President on a regular basis and coming up with a strategy,” she said, “then I think I’d be less scared.”
Reed’s return was Some saw this as a signal that the administration was changing its course. “Trevor Reed’s release is a fantastic example of the Biden Administration putting patriotism over politics,” Rep. August Pfluger, a Texas Republican who represents Reed’s home district, told TIME. “I hope the momentum from Trevor’s homecoming will help compel the Administration to ensure every American can be reunited with their families.”
Yet privately, some family members of others detained abroad say that while they’re happy for Reed’s return, they also fear that it may dampen the urgency for the Biden Administration to do more for their own loved ones. They also say the case is proof that it takes a mix of geopolitical timing and dumb luck for the White House to break the “pattern of indecision” that has kept them in limbo.
Many people brought up the Levinson Act. This law was adopted in 2020 and obligates U.S. governments to help release U.S. citizens. Robert Levinson is the name of the former FBI agent, who disappeared in Iran in 2007. He is believed to be dead. “This law was written in blood so that people wouldn’t die abroad because the government doesn’t know how to dynamically respond to hostage diplomacy issue,” Forseth told TIME.
Continue reading: Trevor Reed’s Release From Russia Renews Questions About Brittney Griner’s Detention.
The families say they were encouraged that the U.S. government this week designated WNBA star Brittney Griner as “wrongfully detained,” two months after she was taken into custody in Russia after being accused of having drugs in her luggage.
According to their loved ones, none of these steps are a solid strategy. Family members claim they know much more about the cases than the officials and that progress is slow. “Without a final decision from the White House to use the tools at their disposal, our loved ones are left to rot in foreign jails with no end in sight,” the event organizers said in a joint statement.
Some lawyers and advocacy who specialize in hostage negotiation share the same view. “I am concerned that full implementation of the Levinson law is not happening, and some U.S. officials are falling into the ‘optics trap’ without a clear policy and goal-oriented approach,” says Jason Poblete, a Washington-based attorney who has represented U.S. citizens held hostage abroad, including members of the Citgo 6. “The goal must be to bring Americans home, not generate media stories.”
Although the White House hasn’t yet replied to their request, they are optimistic that their campaign will be successful. For now, Forseth says she’s keeping in mind the words her father scribbled in a handwritten note that was delivered to her family by a U.S. official in March: “The universe continues to move and align. Please keep strong, we are close.”
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