LLast month saw the release of Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former sailor who had been detained in Russia since 2019 on a nine-year sentence for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers.
Now, Reed’s release has increased pressure on the Biden administration to act decisively on the number of other American hostages held around the world, often for years, with no apparent progress toward their return home.
One of them is Austin Tice, 40, a former Navy and freelance journalist for several 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 caught off guard when Biden said at dinner that he “would like to meet with you and Dad to talk about your son.”
The Tices said they believe the president’s personal involvement would signal to Syria that the US government views their son’s freedom as a diplomatic priority.
“Knowing that Biden supports efforts and wants the same things we want gives them permission to pursue those things without worrying about repercussions or making a misstep,” Marc Tice said Axios.
But the United States maintains an official policy of non-engagement with the Assad regime, and Damascus has “repeatedly made it clear” that it will not negotiate on Tice’s case with mediators. This leaves the Tice wondering how the administration plans to act on their son’s behalf.
“I left the meeting thinking these words were extremely uplifting. I can’t wait to see some action,” Debra Tice said. But she cautioned: “We had lots and lots of words at the nine years and almost nine months. We need action.
Tice is a Navy veteran who traveled to Syria in May 2012 to report on the impact of the civil war on the Syrian people. As he was leaving the country three months later, he was stopped at a checkpoint in the southern Damascus suburb of Darayya.
Five weeks later, a 43-second video titled “Austin Tice Is Alive” was posted online showing him blindfolded and being held by gunmen. Six years later, in November 2018, Presidential Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O’Brien said US officials believed Tice was alive. He did not provide details.
During a press briefing in March 2020, President Donald Trump called on the Assad regime to release him.
“We have a young man, Austin Tice, and we are working very hard with Syria to get him out,” the president said. “We hope the Syrian government will. We rely on them to do so.
“So Syria, please work with us. And we would appreciate you letting it out,” Trump added.
The Tice family now hope Reed’s release in a prisoner exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving time in Connecticut, marks another rare moment of diplomatic energy around an issue. which has been largely overshadowed by the rush of foreign and domestic politics. priorities by the last three successive presidents.
On Wednesday, Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul is jailed in Russia and serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges, joined a rally outside the White House to push for greater official engagement on the issue.
“It’s not something a normal family, just an everyday family, has to deal with. It’s horrible. Whelan said later. She expressed disappointment that American diplomats didn’t get Whelan’s release alongside Reed.” The fact that they couldn’t get them both out at the same time has re-energized that effort, and hopefully that brings attention back to all of these cases.”
The U.S. government says at least 55 U.S. permanent or legal residents are being unjustly detained or taken hostage in countries including Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, and Rwanda, according to advocacy group Bring Our Families Home.
The group met outside the White House on Wednesday to plead for attention from the Biden administration. Some rally attendees said they made multiple attempts to secure a meeting with President Biden to discuss their family’s case.
“You have to go to the president, the one who is going to have to make the tough decisions to resolve these particular cases,” Whelan said. “Either that or there needs to be a better approach to wrongful detention so that we’re not constantly knocking on his door.”
Everett Rutherford, whose nephew, Matthew Heath, is imprisoned in Venezuela on terrorism charges, said the issue of American captives demands “action from the man who occupies the house behind me.”
In almost all cases, the captives are held by governments that view Washington as an adversary. Administration 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 unsaid in public, to do everything we can to advance President Biden’s commitment to see those Americans who are unjustly or unfairly detained around the world or in some cases taken hostage around the world have been brought home,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a press briefing.
The most recent of those classified as ‘wrongfully detained’ is Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after a search of her luggage turned up vaping cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis.
Presidential Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens “will go anywhere, he’ll talk to anyone if it means we’re able to go home with an American, reunite that American with her or her family,” Price said last. the 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 believed to be involved in efforts to secure Griner’s release. . Richardson could not be reached for comment.
Robert Saale, former director of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, an intra-agency operation made up of hostage recovery experts from across government who work out of FBI headquarters in Virginia, told the Military Times last year that the complex dynamics of Syria had played against the release of Tice.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm of circumstances, kind of inopportune times, where you had chemical strikes by Syrians, followed by retaliatory strikes by the US government. It’s sort of a two-step-forward, three-step-back process,” he said.
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president’s national security team would now stay “in regular contact with the Tices and other families of Americans taken hostage or detained.” wrongly abroad.
“We appreciate the bravery and candor of the families enduring these heartbreaking 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 grew increasingly frustrated with efforts to secure their son’s freedom. “We are also extremely frustrated by our government’s recurring and irresolute involvement and insufficient resolve to secure Austin’s release,” a statement said.
But following their meeting with Biden last week, the family expressed renewed optimism. “Trevor walking free means Austin can walk free,” Debra Tice said. “Because all the things I’ve been told that obviously can’t be done can be finished. And now I expect them will be be finished.”