By Humeyra Pamuk and Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will sign an executive order on Tuesday aimed at deterring and punishing the wrongful detention of American citizens abroad by authorizing government agencies to impose sanctions and other measures.
Biden has faced mounting pressure from families of hostages and detainees, most recently in the case of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February and is on trial on drug charges.
The deterioration of US-Russian ties over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted his detention and the broader problem.
The United States does not provide an official figure for how many US citizens are detained abroad, but the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named after an American journalist kidnapped and killed in Syria, says that more than 60 US citizens are unjustly detained. in approximately 18 countries
Some are in the hands of major US adversaries such as Iran, Russia, Venezuela and China.
Biden was “committed to solving all of these cases and … at the same time, beginning to come up with a deterrence strategy that could increase the cost of hostage-taking and wrongful detention,” a senior administration official said in a call. with the journalists. on Monday.
The executive order will authorize agencies to impose unspecified costs and consequences, including financial penalties, on those involved in hostage-taking, officials said.
“The sanctions authority included in this EO allows the United States to impose financial and travel sanctions on those who are responsible for wrongfully holding US citizens, whether their captor is a terrorist network or a state actor,” Secretary of State said. of the United States, Antony Blinken, in a statement.
The order will direct government agencies to work more closely with families of detainees and share information and possibly intelligence, US officials say.
As part of the new steps, the State Department’s travel advisories will add warnings when there is an elevated risk of wrongful detention in a foreign country. On Tuesday, six countries — Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela — will receive the warning.
The administration held a video call Monday with relatives of those detained to preview the executive order, according to multiple participants. Many were disappointed, saying they weren’t allowed to speak on the call and skeptical the order would be effective.
The order “seems to be more concerned with deterring future cases than solving current ones,” one participant said.
The Foley Foundation says countries that wrongfully hold Americans include Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela. and Yemen.
Russia’s April release of former US Marine Trevor Reed intensified calls from family members of others detained abroad for Biden to act.
Reed was released after three years in 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 he demonstrated outside the White House. Family members say they believe the path to securing release begins with a face-to-face meeting with Biden, a view the administration has tried to discourage.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)