WASHINGTON, July 19 — President Joe Biden will sign an executive order today aimed at deterring and punishing wrongful detention of US citizens abroad by authorising government agencies to impose sanctions and other measures.
Biden has faced growing pressure from families of hostages and detainees, particularly on the case of WNBA star Brittney Griner who has been held in Russia since February and is on trial on drug charges.
Deteriorating ties between the United States and Russia over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spotlighted her detention and the wider issue.
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, some for more than a decade.
Biden was “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 yesterday.
The executive order will authorise agencies to impose unspecified costs and consequences, including financial sanctions, on those involved in hostage-taking, officials said.
The sanctions could cover a state or an individual acting on behalf of it, officials said.
The order will direct government agencies to work more closely with detainees’ families and share information and possibly intelligence, they added.
As part of the new steps, State Department travel advisories will add warnings when there is elevated risk of wrongful detention in a foreign country. Today, six countries—Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela—will receive the warning.
The administration held a video call yesterday with family members of detainees to preview the executive order, according to several participants. Many were disappointed, saying they were not allowed to speak on the call and were skeptical the order would be effective.
The order “appears to concern deterring future cases more than solving the current ones,” one participant said.
The US government has not disclosed an official number of Americans detained abroad.
The Foley foundation says 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 intensified calls by relatives of others held overseas for Biden to act.
Reed was freed after three years of detention as part of a prisoner swap with Russia. Biden commuted the US prison sentence of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
Several weeks before Reed’s release, his parents met with Biden after demonstrating outside the White House. Family members say they believe the path to securing release begins with meeting face-to-face with Biden, a view the administration has sought to discourage. — Reuters