President Biden signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at increasing the flow of information to families of Americans detained abroad and at imposing sanctions on the criminals, terrorists, or government officials who hold them captive. It is unclear if the new order will result in bringing home more Americans jailed in foreign countries—by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation's count, more than 60 US citizens are being wrongfully held in 18 countries. But senior Biden administration officials who previewed the action to reporters said they regard it as an important way to raise the cost of hostage-taking and to punish captors, reports the AP. Some families of detained Americans had a less positive take, reports Reuters.
It spoke with relatives who said they weren't permitted to ask questions during the Monday video call that previewed the announcement, that the order is geared more toward preventing future detention than dealing with current detainees, and that it "basically [tells] the various parts of our government to do what they're supposed to be doing." To that end, the action relies on a section of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act—named after a retired FBI agent who vanished in Iran 15 years ago and is now presumed dead—that authorizes the president to impose sanctions, including visa revocations, on people believed to be involved in the wrongful detention of Americans.
Another element of the order will direct federal agencies to do better at sharing information and intelligence with families of detainees about the latest status of their case and efforts to get their loved one home. In addition, the State Department is adding a new risk indicator—"D" for detention—to its country-specific travel advisories to warn travelers about nations where there's believed to be an elevated risk of detention. It will be applied at least initially to Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela. CNN heard some gripes from relatives, but also some positive reaction. The sister of Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018, hailed the "significant move" as one she had been waiting for since the Robert Levinson Act passed in December 2020.
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