For decades the US has largely rejected the idea of prisoner swaps with other countries. The US Justice Department doesn’t like the idea of prisoner swaps, and negotiating the freedom of American citizens without these swaps is near impossible. For people Everett Rutherford the lack of help in getting their nephew Matthew Heath released is horrible.
For Rutherford “the question remains of how to get the Department of Justice to fully engage in the process of recovering hostages and wrongful detainees…And there hasn’t yet been an answer given to that yet — except for the fact that we’ve been told that the president himself can direct them to do so.” So they like many other Americans are stuck waiting for their prison sentences to be served and hopefully be released. In the case of Heath, he is in Venezuela on what his family claims are bogus weapons charges.
Given the State Department’s diplomatic tools to help encourage dialog in situations like these, they would seem like a better fit than the Justice Department to get things done. The Pentagon can authorize the military to conduct raids to free prisoners held across the globe. However, the Justice Department has limited resources largely focused on justice inside US borders, and as such will only offer advice in limited situations.
One of the biggest problems with doing a prisoner swap is not knowing what will happen to those prisoners once they are sent back. It would be left to the will of that government and given the US track record of releasing prisoners we have gotten back it’s no shocker to learn that other countries take the same steps. For the US government, the concern that these very prisoners will either return to the US or re-offend is a real concern.
For people like Mickey Bergman, the vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement this is being looked at in the wrong way. “Because it’s not about the guilty people that get released, it’s about the innocent Americans that come back home. And so I reverse the question and say: Is leaving … innocent Americans to rot in prisons around the world worth the insistence of us having criminals, foreign criminals, serve their full time in the American system?” Bergman’s view is one very commonly held by the families of those imprisoned across the globe.
Given the rare instances where the Justice Department has acted, the frustration is more with the system as a whole than with the current political leadership. President Donald Trump secured the release of Navy Veteran Michael White in 2020. His release from Iran was done in exchange for allowing an American-Iranian to be released from jail and permitted his return to Iran. Even President Obama negotiated the drop of charges against seven Iranians as part of a prisoner exchange with Tehran in conjunction with their nuclear deal. Additionally, three Cubans were sent back home in exchange for the release of American Allan Gross from Havana following his five years in prison.
With 60 or so Americans imprisoned around the globe, the list of families needing help is not very long. Yet the lack of assistance from our government would make it seem like that list is much longer. USMC veteran Trevor Reed and Michigan corporate executive Paul Whelan are imprisoned in Russia on unrelated charges. Navy Veteran Mark Frerichs is being held by the Taliban.
For these families, the lack of updates and assistance is downright criminal, and something they need immediately changed. Any trade they can make to bring these prisoners home is worth it to them, and there really should be something on the table for the US. Given Biden’s recent flouting of his relationship with the Taliban, and the impending sanctions likely to be leveled against Russia he should be able to negotiate for their freedom. It’s high time he does.