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Biden takes aim at countries that wrongfully detain Americans

The president signed an executive order Tuesday as Russian courts weigh a possible 10-year sentence for an American basketball star while the Kremlin faces political pressure for its war in Ukraine.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Taking a stand against what he called “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the country’s national security, foreign policy and economy, President Joe Biden signed an executive order Tuesday crafted to better protect Americans from wrongful detentions abroad and help bring home those already imprisoned or held hostage.

“Terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other gain — as well as foreign states that engage in the practice of wrongful detention, including for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States — threaten the integrity of the international political system and the safety of United States nationals and other persons abroad,” Biden wrote in a message to Congress, announcing the order Tuesday.

The move allows the federal government to share more information with people whose families are being detained overseas, and it grants the U.S. the ability to impose financial sanctions and other consequences on those involved in such detentions. It comes amid the highly contentious trial of American basketball star Brittney Griner in Russia while tensions between the former Soviet nation and the U.S. are already heightened with the war in Ukraine.

The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested at a Russian airport in February for transporting a vape with cannabis oil into Russia, where the Phoenix Mercury star plays during the WNBA’s offseason. She was charged with intentionally transporting narcotics and has pleaded guilty, saying she packed the drugs by mistake, with no criminal intent. Griner is an Arizona resident, where cannabis products are recreationally legal. Depending on the results of her ongoing trial, which resumed last week, she could face five to 10 years in Russian prison. 

While it didn’t mention Griner by name, the Biden administration said in a statement Tuesday that the order comes as a result of working with families of Americans who have been held hostage or imprisoned overseas and “advances the unwavering commitment of the United States to bring home Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained.” 

The order pulls its power from a 2020 law that required the State Department to establish guidelines for when Americans are wrongly held by foreign governments. Called the Robert Levinson Act, the law is named after a retired FBI agent who disappeared in 2007 and was held in Iranian custody until his death, which was announced by his family in 2020.

In addition, the order creates a new State Department travel designation for Americans to keep in mind when traveling overseas — the “D” indicator. The “D,” standing for “detention,” will indicate countries where travelers could see a heightened risk of wrongful detention by the government. Venezuela, China, Iran, Russia and North Korea are among the first countries that will receive the mark.

“This additional risk indicator will highlight the elevated risk that Americans face in particular countries and provide Americans with comprehensive safety and security information with which to make informed travel decisions,” the White House said, noting that the “D” indicator joins the existing “K” indicator that indicates Americans facing an elevated risk of kidnapping or being held hostage by non-state actors during travels.

The order also tasks federal experts “to develop options and strategies to deter future hostage-taking and wrongful detentions.”

“President Biden and experts across the Administration will draw on this E.O. to advance our efforts and remain committed to reuniting Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained with their families,” the White House said.

While the United States has issued Russia and its oligarchs numerous sanctions over the last few months surrounding the nation’s invasion of Ukraine, ordered by President Vladimir Putin, the Biden administration managed to secure the release in April of this year of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from a Russian prison. Reed, who had been imprisoned for threatening local police, was freed after the U.S. arranged a prisoner exchange, sending over a jailed Russian pilot who had been held in Connecticut.

Meanwhile former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, also imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, remains detained. Biden spoke with Whelan’s sister this month, as he did with Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, promising to explore “every avenue” to bring the star home; both family members have been critical of the way their loved ones’ cases have been handled.

Categories: International Law National

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