Relatives of Americans Detained Abroad Seek Action from President Joe Biden

Relatives of Americans held abroad gathered Wednesday outside the White House to urge the Biden administration to do more to bring home their loved ones. They also said they wanted increased access to the president to make their case.

The gathering unfolded against a backdrop of several high-profile prisoners releases over the past year, including civilian contractor Mark Frerichs in Afghanistan, a group of oil executives in Venezuela, WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia, and Paul Rusesabagina of “Hotel Rwanda” fame.

However, dozens of Americans continue to be held overseas by foreign governments, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s recent arrest in Russia. The journalist’s detainment has underscored how hostage diplomacy remains an ongoing national security priority for the U.S. and has brought fresh attention to the issue.

“Seeing all these people come home in the last year, I think it shows us that it’s possible. There needs to be the will — from the president, from the highest levels of our government — to bring our families home,” said Harrison Li in an interview preceding the event. Li’s father, Kai Li, has been held in a Chinese prison since 2015.

Li noted for all countries where the United States has seen recent success; China is not one of them.

Also in attendance were some Americans freed over the last year, including Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who Russia released in an April 2022 prisoner swap for a Russian pilot convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy case. In the weeks leading up to Reed’s release, his parents were able to meet with Biden. They were also in attendance outside the White House.

“When he called us,” said Reed’s father, “it meant everything to us. I mean, it gave us a complete new perspective and an ability to hang in there until he brought our son home.”

Griner did not attend the gathering Wednesday, participating instead in a media day for her WNBA team. She has emerged as a sort of ambassador for the detainee and hostage community, using her celebrity status to raise attention for other hostages still detained, including Gershkovich and American corporate security executive Paul Whelan still being detained in Russia. In the months following Reed’s release, the United States brought home Griner in a one-to-one swap for Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer.

Hannah Sharghi pleaded with the president to bring her father home so that “he is able be my dad again” instead of a diplomatic “pawn in a game that is not his to play.” Sharghi’s father, Emad, has been held since 2018 in Iran on espionage charges her family claims are false.

“We have asked for a meeting with the president for so long now that I frankly don’t know how else to ask or what else to say,” said Sharghi. She added of her father, “He’s an innocent American. He deserves to be here, standing behind me, fighting the fight for all families.”

U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs maintains efforts to bring detainees home continue

The U.S. government’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, said in an interview this week that efforts to bring detained Americans home continues regardless of whether a family has spoken to the president. Carstens said that of the 27 individuals the U.S. has brought home in the past two years, only two have family members that have met with the president.

“The real metric, the real measure of success, is whether someone comes home, steps on a tarmac on the U.S., and falls into the loving arms of their family,” said Carstens, adding, “Whether the president speaks to a family or not doesn’t stop the machinery of trying to get the job actually done.”