By Jackson Diehl
President Trump didn’t have many foreign policy celebrations this year, but some of those he had were worth watching. Andrew Brunson, the American pastor held by Turkey’s authoritarian regime, knelt and prayed in the Oval Office after Trump won his release in October. When three U.S. citizens were freed by North Korea in May, Trump journeyed to Joint Base Andrews at 3 a.m. to greet them.
A couple of weeks later, while meeting Joshua Holt, who had been unjustly jailed by Venezuela, Trump bragged that 17 Americans held abroad had been released on his watch. “Most people don’t know that,” he groused.
In fact, the president deserves some credit: He and his aides have tried harder than their predecessors to rescue innocent U.S. citizens jailed by foreign dictators. For example, the White House used Trump’s summit meeting with Kim Jong Un as leverage to extract the prisoners Pyongyang was holding. That remains the most meaningful concession the regime has made.
Vice President Pence leaned on Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi during a visit in January; the eventual result was the release of Ahmed Etiwy, an Egyptian American wrongly arrested during a visit to Cairo in 2013. Last week, 43 NGO workers, including American and Egyptian employees of the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, finally had their convictions reversed in a case dating to 2011. That, too, was the subject of heavy U.S. lobbying.
When Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan held up Brunson’s release in the summer, Trump imposed sanctions on two Turkish cabinet ministers and threatened more. It was a crude way to pressure a NATO ally, but it worked.
When I polled advocates for imprisoned Americans last week, they agreed that, as lawyer Jared Genser put it, “President Trump has personally been interested and engaged in helping secure the release of wrongly imprisoned Americans around the world — and to his credit he has seen some success.”
This is still the Trump administration, however. So it’s not surprising that the advocates say the president’s efforts have been sporadic, unfocused and politically skewed — and that some of his other actions have made matters worse for U.S. prisoners and their families.
There are a lot of them: Genser says there are 3,000 U.S. citizens imprisoned worldwide, of whom about 100 are hostages. What we know about them is mostly thanks to advocates such as Mohamed Soltan, a former U.S. prisoner in Egypt, who estimates that an additional 15 Americans are still jailed there. There is at least one more American held on political grounds in Turkey, at least five in Iran and at least one in Saudi Arabia.
Several of the Egyptian cases reveal a regime that casts itself as a U.S. ally persecuting Americans on purpose. Moustafa Kassem was arrested in August 2013 after he walked out of a shopping mall just as security forces were conducting a sweep. Kassem, a dual Egyptian American citizen, made the mistake of showing his U.S. passport; he was immediately assaulted and badly beaten and has been in prison ever since.
In September, on the day before he was due to be sentenced on trumped-up charges, the administration released $1.2 billion in new aid to Egypt. The next day Kassem was handed a 15-year prison term. “The Trump administration is making very political calculations in these cases,” said Praveen Madhiraju, who represents Kassem. “They created leverage for Pastor Brunson in Turkey with the imposition of sanctions. But in Egypt they already have a ton of leverage but go out of their way not to use it.”
In the case of Iran, which has made the kidnapping of Americans into a cottage industry, Trump has been curiously passive. Says Genser: “We haven’t seen any meaningful consequences imposed on the government for maintaining their detention, we’re not aware of any incentives offered to provide a face-saving way out for the Iranians, and there hasn’t been any direct dialogue of which we are aware.” He works one of the most tragic cases: Siamak Namazi, a businessman arrested in 2015, and his 82-year-old father Baquer, who was seized when he traveled to Tehran to visit his son.
If Trump has given prisoners and families hope with his occasional interventions, he has sent the opposite message by excusing Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a legal U.S. resident and a writer for The Post. That “has had a real chilling effect,” said Madhiraju. “It has scared prisoners and their families into hiding.” Americans locked up abroad dream of visiting the Oval Office after Trump springs them. They also wrestle with the nightmare that he will abandon them to a despot who flatters him.