President Joe Biden signs executive order that aims to punish captors of Americans held abroad

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at increasing the flow of information to families of Americans detained abroad and imposing penalties on criminals, terrorists or government officials who hold them captive.

It’s unclear whether the new order will result in more Americans detained abroad being brought home, but senior Biden administration officials who previewed the action to reporters said they see it as an important way to help increase the cost of hostage-taking and punish kidnappers.

The executive order comes as the administration has been criticized by some families for a perceived lack of creativity and aggressiveness in getting loved ones home. In addition, the continued imprisonment of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia has drawn increased attention to the population of Americans imprisoned abroad who have been deemed wrongfully imprisoned by the US.

A rep for Griner told ESPN’s TJ Quinn that they had no plans to comment. “We’re concentrating on her trial right now,” the spokesman said.

The action relies on a section of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act – named after a retired FBI agent who disappeared in Iran 15 years ago and is now presumed dead – that empowers the President to impose sanctions including visa revocations on individuals believed to be involved in the wrongful detention of Americans.

In this case, officials said, it could apply to government officials or to criminals or terrorists unaffiliated with any government. Because sanctions may not always help ease the release of a detained American — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, has come despite a spate of economic sanctions from Western allies — such sanctions are expected to be used judiciously, an official told the reporter informed on condition of anonymity according to the basic rules established by the administration.

“This threatens the grass roots involved in these cases,” Danielle Gilbert, a fellow at Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for National and International Studies and an expert on government-sponsored hostage-taking, told ESPN. “It is a credible threat to punish a wide range of officials for engaging in this egregious behavior.”

“Sanctions are not always effective. Research shows they only achieve their goals a minority of the time,” Gilbert said. “But if the threat of sanctions makes it harder for Americans to be held hostage — if it becomes harder for our adversaries to engage in that form of coercion — the policy will have had a tremendous impact.”

Another element of the order will direct federal authorities to better share information and intelligence with families of inmates about the latest status of their case and efforts to bring their loved ones home.

In addition, the State Department is adding a new risk indicator to its country-specific travel advisories to warn travelers about countries suspected of having an increased risk of detention.

The department already uses risk indicators for foreign travel for categories such as crime, health and kidnapping. Officials said the new risk indicator, marked “D” for detention, will be applied, at least initially, to the following countries: Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela.

Relatives of incarcerated Americans gather in Washington this week to unveil a mural honoring the inmates. Administration officials declined to say if Biden would meet with the families.

Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, who is being held in Russia, said her family welcomed the announcement.

“I see it as a really significant step,” she told ESPN. “I’m so tired of people being afraid to take steps that will protect Americans and I really don’t care what Russia thinks about it. Russia has taken our citizens and is essentially holding them hostage.”

Whether it would get her brother or Griner home sooner, she said, “It’s really hard to say. I just know it puts a little more pressure on our side, so I think that’s hopeful. I can’t imagine how that doesn’t push things in the right direction a little bit more.”

She also praised the part of the executive order that gives families access to more information about their detained loved ones.

“We [have had] That pressure to go to the West Wing of the White House to find out if something is happening and if we got more information we wouldn’t feel that pressure, we would know what’s going on a lot clearer,” she said.

Paul Whelan has been in Russia since December 2018 when he was charged with espionage and later convicted. The United States considers him wrongly imprisoned.

Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for the Bring Our Families Home campaign, a group advocating for the interests of hostages and inmates, said in a statement that “families continue to await a response to their requests to meet with President Biden “.

Franks said that instead of meaningfully engaging with the families, “the White House is taking executive action to direct itself to obey established law.”

Information from TJ Quinn of ESPN and The Associated Press was used in this report. President Joe Biden signs executive order that aims to punish captors of Americans held abroad

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