WASHINGTON— Families of American hostages in Iran on Thursday called on the House to approve a bill that would increase government assistance to Americans wrongfully detained abroad and impose sanctions on foreign officials responsible for the detainments.
“Any American traveling today, working abroad as a journalist, as an aid worker, as a businessman, as a tourist, as a student— they’re all at risk of being wrongfully taken and our government must have their back,” said Margaux Ewen, executive director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.
The Levinson Act, approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, would set criteria to determine which Americans are unjustly detained abroad and establish a communication mechanism between members of Congress and the families of those detained.
“The act raises awareness in a structural way in the U.S. Congress,” said Margaux Ewen, executive director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. “It makes room to create permanent mechanisms in both chambers to support [hostages and their] families.”
The bill is essential to the families of those detained abroad who might not know how to contact members of Congress or find appropriate government resources, said Ewen.
“We’ve been enduring ongoing pain and disappointment that my family members have been held captive for so long,” said Babak Namazi, son of Baquer Namazi and brother of Siamak Namazi, two Americans wrongfully detained in Iran.
Namazi’s brother was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for “collaborating with a hostile state,” although Namazi insists his brother is innocent. His father, Baquer, was arrested in 2016 when he traveled to Tehran to secure Siamak’s release.
There are at least five American hostages held in Iran, including Namazi’s brother and father. Robert Levinson is a former FBI agent detained in Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 and considered to be the longest-held American hostage in history, although little is known of his current conditions. Michael White is a Navy veteran imprisoned in July 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting Iran’s supreme leader. White has cancer that is likely to be going untreated under Iran’s dire prison conditions. Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American, was arrested in January 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly conducting espionage.
It is likely that more Americans are detained but their families might choose to keep their cases private due to security concerns, said Ewen.
The State Department does not know how many Americans are unjustly detained abroad.
The bill outlines criteria that can be used to define who is considered wrongfully detained, including evidence of innocence and human rights infringements against them, which would allow the U.S. government to provide resources more efficiently, said Jared Genser, a law professor at Georgetown University.
The bill would require consistent communication between family members of detainees and government officials so families can understand if their case is addressed at the executive or consular level.
“Families are ready to hear difficult answers from the government,” said Ewen. “They just want to be kept informed.”
The measure would impose sanctions against foreign government officials responsible for wrongfully detaining Americans. Families of detained Americans want to work with foreign governments and nonprofits to secure the release of prisoners from countries that have weak diplomatic ties with the U.S., said Ewen.
“It’s really time to put an end to this unfathomable, unexplainable inhumane treatment of human beings,” said Namazi.