Number of wrongfully detained Americans decreases for first time in a decade

September 13, 2023

The number of wrongfully detained U.S. nationals overseas has decreased for the first time in a decade, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The release of 21 U.S. nationals last year was “the largest number of publicly known wrongful detention releases in one year,” according to the report from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which has tracked cases dating back to 2001.

The Foundation was founded to promote the safety of journalists. James Foley was a journalist in Iraq who was beheaded by ISIS in 2014 as the terrorist organization demanded that then-President Obama end U.S. military operations in that country.

“Wrongfully detained” is a U.S. State Department designation which shifts a U.S. prisoner in a foreign country to a specialized section of the agency, called the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. That special envoy, currently Roger Carstens, can then focus on negotiating for that U.S. national’s release. 

According to the new report, the decline comes after President Biden declared a national emergency in the effort to bring home wrongful U.S. detainees.

The report notes that starting in 2012, there had been a “significant rise” in the number of wrongfully detained U.S. nationals. “However, the number of U.S. nationals who continue to be held year after year decreased by 31% after August 1, 2022.”

The report was released a day after the State Department announced a prisoner exchange deal to clear the way for the release of five American citizens detained in Iran, who were not factored into the report’s totals.

According to the Foley Foundation, at least 53 U.S. nationals are wrongfully detained at present, and the powers holding the most wrongful detainees are China, Russia, Venezuela, and Iran. 

Special envoy Carstens said in July that his office is handling about 30 to 40 cases, though it was unclear whether he was referring only to wrongful detainees or also hostages, which are detainees held by non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations. 

A dozen of the releases in 2022 were resolved through diplomatic engagement along with the involvement non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Another five resolutions solely involved diplomatic engagement. Three more were attributed to a third party. One was resolved by a family payment. And one other detainee was freed due to engagement by Congress.

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