Justice Dept frustrates families of American captives
WASHINGTON (AP), -- It didn't take long before relatives of American oil executives imprisoned in Venezuela met with a top Justice Department official.
The officials asked them about the possibility of a prisoner swap that would allow their loved ones to return home. However, they were informed that this was a White House decision and not something that the U.S. government was inclined to do. They also vented about the extradition of Nicolas Maduro's associate to the U.S., which sparked tensions in Caracas. The American prisoners were then released from house arrest.
A person who was present at the meeting described it as a private one and did not make any commitments. It did highlight the frustrations of some hostage and family members toward the Justice Department. They see it as unwilling to find creative ways to bring their relatives back from abroad and resistant to exchanging prisoners. Everett Rutherford said that Matthew Heath is currently being held in Venezuela for what his family claims are bogus weapon charges. "And that hasn't been answered yet. Except for the fact that the president can direct them to do that, that is all.
The Justice Department is not often considered a leading agency in hostage matters. The State Department has diplomatic tools and serves as the government's chief hostage negotiator. While the Pentagon is authorized to launch military strikes to liberate hostages, it doesn't have the authority to do so. Although the interests of all three agencies are not always in line on hostage issues, they can sometimes be overshadowed or influenced by wider national security or diplomatic concerns. In the case with the Justice Department, the government may decide what is best to hold criminals accountable.
In a statement, the Justice Department stated that it recognizes that Americans are placed in extremely difficult circumstances and suffer unimaginable pain when wrongfully detained. It also said that it collaborates with federal agencies to bring these families home in accordance with its "no concessions" hostage policy.
The U.S. government sees a prisoner swap as creating false equivalency between an American wrongfully detained and a convicted felon. This could encourage more captures by foreign governments.
Bergman stated that it is not about the guilty persons that are released. It's about innocent Americans who return home. "And so, I reverse the question to ask: Is it worth allowing innocent Americans to languish in prisons all over the world? Or insisting that foreign criminals and criminals serve their entire time in the American system?
This issue is especially relevant because several countries and groups, including Russia, that are holding Americans have made it public the names of those they want to release from the U.S.
Families are less frustrated with the Justice Department's current political leadership than they are with the institution itself. This agency, which has been praised for its independence and the prerogative to make sentencing recommendations and prosecutorial decisions without regard to political considerations across all administrations, is what causes the frustration. This instinct is vital for democracy but can lead to actions that hostage families consider dismissive.
U.S. officials presented Alex Saab as a close Maduro associate in October's extradition to Miami. This upset six Citgo executives, who have been held for years in Venezuela, over an unexecuted plan to repay billions of bonds. This was a tension point at this month's Justice Department phone call as well as in a December meeting between hostage family members and Jake Sullivan. However, the situation could be complicated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration signing Saab up in 2018 to be a source.
Predates the Biden administration. Some of the family's requests for swaps didn't get traction under the former President Donald Trump. There is precedent for diplomatic arrangements.
Trump's administration was seen to be more open to violating hostage conventions. In 2020, Navy veteran Michael White was brought home in an agreement that did not put an American-Iranian doctor under arrest in the Justice Department and allowed him to return to Iran. In a prisoner swap tied to the nuclear agreement with Tehran, seven Iranians were pardoned by the Obama administration or dropped their charges. After five years in prison, three Cuban prisoners were released by Havana and sent home.
Around 60 Americans are known to have been held hostage or wrongfully arrested. This includes Americans who were innocent of being jailed in order to get concessions from the U.S.
Families with at least one child see new opportunities to save money.
According to the Taliban's Haqani network, Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran from Illinois, is being held by them. The Taliban has also told the U.S. that it wants Bashir Noorzai, an imprisoned drug lord, released. Russia has taken Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran, into custody. He was sentenced to nine-years for assaulting police officers in Moscow. Paul Whelan, a Michigan engineer, was also taken into custody on espionage allegations. Officials from Russia have at times floated the names of people it would like to return home, including Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer, and Konstantin Yaroshenko (a drug smuggler), both currently in U.S.
Nine Americans, including Heath and Citgo 6, were detained in Venezuela while the U.S. holds two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady on drug-related charges.
Some families of hostages and detainees say that they are encouraged by the ease with which they have had access to top administration officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Sullivan. However, resistance to trade has remained constant.
Charlene Cakora is Frerichs' sister. She met with Justice Department and White House officials last August. She claims that she was told Noorzai was a "bad guy" and that the government wouldn't trade for her brother.
Trevor's parents, Paula Reed (and Joey Reed) claim that U.S. officials told them they would seek the same outcome if it were in their shoes. The Granbury, Texas couple has asked Justice Department officials to make a deal right away, but they have only said that they are "considering everything."
They didn't say, "Oh, we agree, that's great. They said, "That's a good point." They said, "We hear you." She said, "Thank you very much." "They didn’t give us any indication of the other."
Paul's sister Elizabeth Whelan said that she was grateful for the attention of the U.S. government. She stated that she isn't sure what Russia wants for her brother, and claimed that the demands of it and other countries are "stupid and over-the-top."
She added that she felt her brother was worth what Russia asked for.