lLast month, Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former Marine who had been held in Russia since 2019 on a nine-year prison sentence for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers was released.
Now Reed’s release has put pressure on the… Biden administration to take decisive action against the number of other American hostages being held around the world, often for years, with no apparent progress towards their return home.
One of them is 40-year-old Austin Tice, a former naval and freelance journalist for several media outlets, including the Washington Post, who was detained in Syria in 2012.
Last week, Tice’s parents, Debra and Marc, met Biden at the White House, two days after Tice’s mother, Debra, attended the White House Correspondents Association dinner. She says she was taken aback when Biden said over dinner that he “would like to meet you and daddy to talk about your son”.
The Tices have said they believe the President’s personal involvement in Syria will send a signal that the US administration considers their son’s freedom a diplomatic priority.
“Knowing that Biden supports the effort and wants the same things we do, gives them the license to pursue these things without worrying about repercussions or making a misstep,” said Marc Tice. said Axios.
But the US maintains an official policy of non-involvement with the Assad regime, and Damascus has “repeatedly made it clear” that it will not negotiate with any mediators on Tice’s case. That has left the Tice wondering how the government plans to act on their son’s behalf.
“I left the meeting thinking these were hugely encouraging words. I can hardly wait to see some action,” said Debra Tice. But she warned: “We’ve had a lot of words in the past nine years and nearly nine months. We need action.”
Tice is a naval veteran who traveled to Syria in May 2012 to report on the impact of the civil war on the Syrian people. Three months later, after he was out of the country, he was detained at a checkpoint in Darayya, a suburb in southern Damascus.
Five weeks later, a 43-second video titled “Austin Tice is Alive” was posted online showing him being held blindfolded by gunmen. Six years later, in November 2018, then-presidential special envoy to hostage-taking, Robert O’Brien, said U.S. officials believed Tice was still alive. He did not give details.
At a press conference in March 2020, President Donald Trump called on the Assad regime to release him.
“We have a young gentleman, Austin Tice, and we are working very hard with Syria to get him out,” the president said. “We hope the Syrian government will do that. We count on them to do that.
“So, Syria, please cooperate with us. And we would appreciate it if you release him,” Trump added.
The Tice family now hopes that Reed’s release in a prisoner swap for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving time in Connecticut, marks another rare moment of diplomatic energy surrounding an issue largely obscured under an infatuation of foreign and domestic. political parties. priorities of the last three successive presidents.
On Wednesday, Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul is in prison in Russia and is serving a 16-year prison sentence on charges of espionage, joined a rally outside the White House to press for more official involvement in the issue.
“This is not something a normal family, but an ordinary family, will ever have to deal with. It’s horrible.” Whelan said later. She expressed disappointment that American diplomats had not partnered with Reed to secure Whelan’s release. “The fact that they couldn’t get them both out at the same time has revived that effort, and I hope it brings attention back to all of these cases.”
The U.S. government says at least 55 U.S. or legal permanent residents are being falsely held or held hostage in Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan and Rwanda, among others. according to the advocacy group Bring Our Families Home.
The group gathered outside the White House on Wednesday to draw the attention of the Biden administration. Some at the meeting said they had repeatedly tried to meet with President Biden to discuss their family’s case.
“You have to go to the president, the one who has to make the tough decisions to resolve these specific cases,” Whelan said. “Either that, or there must be a better approach to tackle wrongful detention, so that we don’t constantly knock on his door.”
Everett Rutherford, whose cousin, Matthew Heath, is imprisoned in Venezuela on terrorism charges, said the issue of American prisoners “requires action from the man who lives in the house behind me”.
In almost all cases, the prisoners are held by governments that view Washington as an adversary. Government officials say the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad is a foreign policy priority.
“We are doing everything we can, almost everything unseen, almost everything unspoken in public, to do everything we can to live up to President Biden’s commitment to see these Americans who are being wrongfully or unfairly detained around the world or in some cases held hostage around the world were brought home,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a news conference.
The most recent of those classified as “improperly detained” is Brittney Griner, the star center for the Phoenix Mercury, who was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after searching her luggage for vape cartridges containing oil sourced from cannabis.
Presidential special envoy for hostage situations, Roger Carstens, “will go anywhere, he will talk to anyone if it means we can come home with an American, reunite that American with her or his family,” Price said recently. week.
Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who has long been involved in efforts to free Americans imprisoned abroad, including in North Korea, is also reportedly involved in the effort to secure Griner’s release. Richardson could not be reached for comment.
Robert Saale, former director of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, an operation within an organization composed of government hostage experts from FBI headquarters in Virginia, told the Military Times last year that Syria’s complex dynamics had thwarted Tice’s release.
“It’s almost a perfect storm of conditions, kind of inopportune times, where you’ve had chemical attacks by Syrians followed by retaliatory attacks by the US government. It’s kind of like two steps forward, three steps back,” he said.
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president’s national security team will henceforth “maintain regular contact with the Tices and other families of Americans who are being held hostage or wrongly held abroad.
“We appreciate the courage and candor of families who have endured these harrowing experiences, and we remain committed to supporting them and, most importantly, reuniting them with their loved ones,” Psaki continued.
Last summer, the Tices said they had grown increasingly frustrated with efforts to secure their son’s freedom. “We are also deeply frustrated by our administration’s indecisive, on-off-on commitment and its insufficient determination to secure Austin’s release,” a statement said.
But after meeting Biden last week, the family expressed renewed optimism. “Trevor running free means Austin can run free,” said Debra Tice. “Because all the things I’ve been told can’t be done of course can to be ready. And now I expect them shall to be ready.”