President Donald Trump may soon find out whether his chest-thumping “America first” policy can bring some desperate Americans back home.
The president is coming under increasing pressure from relatives of Americans imprisoned by foreign governments to secure their release. Some are pushing his administration to use a Tuesday meeting about the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna to persuade Tehran to release Americans in its custody, despite Trump’s vehement criticism of the Islamic Republic.
Just days ago, Trump was beaming after helping free an American held prisoner in Egypt, a country he’s been heavily courting. But then some ominous news landed over the weekend: another U.S. citizen had been detained, this time in North Korea, which Trump has singled out as a threat.
In all, the developments are a vivid reminder of the human stakes involved as the new Republican president calibrates his approach to foreign policy. Trump’s decision on which countries to engage, which to isolate, and when to seek a middle ground could dramatically affect the fate of Americans imprisoned abroad on what their supporters insist are baseless charges.
“These circumstances are cases that are incredibly complex, challenging and for which failure is not an option,” said Jared Genser, a lawyer trying to help free American citizens Baquer and Siamak Namazi, a father and son held in Iran.
Trump scored an early success in securing the release of American charity worker Aya Hijazi, who was acquitted by an Egyptian court of child abuse and human trafficking charges after around three years in custody. But her case may prove a relatively easy one given Trump’s eagerness to mend U.S.-Egypt ties, which frayed under former President Barack Obama.
Trump views Egypt as a critical counter-terrorism ally, and he has been willing to set aside concerns about its human rights record to earn the good graces of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. In early April, Trump hosted Sisi at the White House, a huge boost for an Arab leader largely shunned by Obama. White House officials have said that Trump raised Hijazi’s case with the Egyptian leader, though it was not clear exactly when.
But several Americans detained overseas are in countries that the Trump administration has been far less friendly toward, including Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. While Obama looked for ways to engage Iran, took a mixed approach toward Venezuela, and largely gave up on publicly reaching out to North Korea, Trump has been notably harsher toward those three countries. In particular, he’s targeted North Korea over its nuclear ambitions and warned Iran to stop meddling outside its borders.
Some former U.S. officials say the more strident tone under Trump may make some of the targeted countries less inclined to release the Americans.
“Just generally, if the relationship is very complicated, like with Venezuela and North Korea, and there’s a lot of hostility, it’s not helpful when you’re negotiating a prisoner release,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has been trying to help Americans detained in those two countries.
At the same time, if Trump stays consistently tough toward those countries, they may calculate that imprisoning Americans is not a useful way to gain leverage over the United States. Some may even choose to release the Americans as a gesture aimed at lowering tensions, Richardson added.
“What these prisoner releases can do, and what I have urged in the past, is that they can be a pathway to a dialogue between the two hostile countries,” said Richardson, a Democrat who also served as ambassador to the United Nations under the Clinton administration.
Richard Boucher, a former top U.S. diplomat who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, said the trick is to keep the release of the Americans a priority but not hinge other key foreign policy objectives on their freedom.
“Most people in the policy process would say we can’t let some American – an innocent missionary or whoever is detained – you can’t let their presence affect our national goals,” Boucher said. “Otherwise your policy becomes hostage.”
Asked whether the administration’s tough rhetoric could undermine its efforts to free U.S. citizens, the State Department said in a statement: “The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the State Department. Every case is different and handled individually.”
It’s not clear how many Americans are imprisoned by foreign governments or how many of them are being held for politically motivated reasons. The State Department won’t release such information, citing privacy concerns. The cases also differ from those of Americans held hostage by terrorist groups or other non-state actors. The relatives of some imprisoned Americans never publicize their cases, hoping to quietly negotiate their release.
Since Trump’s inauguration, however, some families have become more vocal than in the past. They hope the new U.S. president will live up to campaign declarations that he won’t stand for such treatment of American citizens.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier went on Fox News earlier this month to plead with the new administration to bring home their son, Otto, who was sentenced in 2016 to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. The University of Virginia student reportedly confessed to trying to take a propaganda banner while visiting North Korea.
“President Trump, I ask you, bring my son home. You can make a difference here,” Fred Warmbier said in the TV appearance.
But the Warmbiers’ request came as tensions were rising between the Trump administration and North Korea. Trump aides publicly would not rule out using military force to destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and North Korea suggested it would react in kind. Last weekend, in a show of defiance, North Korea tried to test a missile, but the projectile exploded upon launch.
On Saturday, Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, was stopped by North Korean authorities as he was trying to fly out of Pyongyang, The Associated Press reported.
Kim, a college professor, is the third American known to be in North Korean custody. Aside from Otto Warmbier, businessman Kim Dong Chul is being held, sentenced to several years of hard labor on accusations of spying.
North Korea has freed Americans in its custody before, though usually after a gesture by the United States. In 2014, under Obama, Pyongyang freed Matthew Todd Miller and Kenneth Bae after then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited North Korea on a secret trip.
Richardson said he’s been trying to persuade the North Korean government to let him visit for a discussion on how to release the Americans, and that they “haven’t said no” yet. He urged the Trump administration to “cool the bluster, tone down the rhetoric” and seek potential third-party channels, such as the Chinese, to lean on North Korea to free the Americans.
The lengthy talks with Iran that led to the nuclear deal gave the Obama administration a rare opening with a long-standing nemesis to negotiate the release of several Americans.
In January 2016, Iran agreed to free five Americans during the same weekend in which the nuclear deal was officially implemented. The release of four of the Americans was part of a deal that saw the U.S. drop charges or arrest warrants for a total of 21 people suspected of offenses including illegal arms importation. Iran and the U.S. also settled a separate, decades-old legal dispute that led the U.S. to pay Iran $1.7 billion. The nuclear deal’s critics alleged that was essentially a ransom for the American prisoners.
Iran refused to free at least one American in its custody at the time: businessman Siamak Namazi, who is now 45. Soon afterward, Iran also detained Siamak’s father, Baquer Namazi, an 80-year-old former United Nations official. Aside from the Namazis, at least two other Americans are believed to now be in Iranian custody, as well as two U.S. green-card holders. Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson also went missing in Iran 10 years ago.
Genser, the lawyer working on the Namazi case, said the pair’s relatives hope that Trump’s deputies will raise the matter with Iranian officials Tuesday, when they meet in Vienna to discuss the status of the nuclear deal.
“We understand the Namazi cases will be raised by the United States in its first bilateral discussions with Iran since President Trump’s inauguration,” Genser said. “While this will be a critical step forward, U.S. officials must then engage aggressively to secure their release as both are in rapidly deteriorating health.”
Tuesday’s meeting, however, comes as the Trump administration has escalated its rhetoric against Iran. Last week, shortly after certifying to Congress that Iran was adhering to the nuclear deal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a press conference to pillory Iran for a long list of reasons. Tillerson even blasted the nuclear agreement itself, insisting it would not curb Tehran’s long-term nuclear ambitions.
Asked whether Trump’s rhetoric hurts the Namazis’ prospects of getting freed, Genser said it’s hard to predict because so many factors are in play. “It’s very difficult to understand how governments that are hostile to the United States think about dealing with any president, let alone this one,” he said.
Trump also has taken a tough stance toward Venezuela, which has detained 25-year-old U.S. citizen Josh Holt since last June.
Holt went to Venezuela last year to marry a woman he’d met online. He and his new wife were were picked up by Venezuelan officials who allege he was stockpiling weapons. The officials also cast him as part of a grander U.S. plot to undermine the rule of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which has been marked by economic turmoil leading to shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.
In February, the Trump administration leveled sanctions against a Venezuelan vice president over allegations that he’s a drug trafficker. Later that month, the U.S. president met with the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, a jailed Venezuelan opposition leader.
Shortly after Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, Josh Holt’s mother, Laurie, released a video asking the new president to do more to help free her son. She is in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers and members of the administration about her son’s case.
She believes that Venezuela, which still retains important trade links to the United States and which indirectly donated $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration, will be more responsive to tough talk than sweet talk.
“I voted for Trump because I felt like the way he goes about things, that it would, maybe, make Venezuela be afraid because they don’t know what he’s going to do,” Laurie Holt said in an interview. “Something has to give somewhere.”
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