Families of Americans detained abroad call for urgent action from Biden to free their loved ones

That growing anger and distress was underscored this week by the attempted suicide of Matthew Heath, a Navy veteran imprisoned in Venezuela for nearly two years, as well as a “logistical error” that kept the WNBA star Brittney Griner to call him. woman, with whom she has not spoken for more than 100 days, on their birthday.

A number of family members of American hostages and detainees had initially expressed great optimism and hope when the Biden administration took office in January 2021, particularly in light of a virtual meeting held by Secretary of State Antony Blinken with family members in early February 2021. A senior State Department official said Blinken will meet with families again virtually on Wednesday.

Neda Sharghi, whose brother Emad Shargi has been detained in Iran since 2018, told CNN on Tuesday that they “walked away with great hope that there would be some urgency on this issue.”

But more than a year after that first Blinken meeting, the vast majority of their loved ones are still not home, and after Trevor Reed was released from Russia after his parents met Biden, families feel that real progress requires direct contact with the president.

On Monday, Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas also called on Biden to meet with the detained basketball star’s family, writing on Twitter Monday, “If #BrittneyGriner is a priority, @POTUS will meet with Brittney’s family and this administration will do what is necessary to get her home quickly and safely.”

On the same day, a group of family members of detainees and hostages from around the world calling themselves the Bring Our Families Home campaign sent a letter to Biden, formally asking him to meet with the campaign leadership team, “composed of five family members, to share our views, ask you to meet the families by country and provide you with information that we believe will move all of our cases forward.”

“It has become clear to us that without your direct involvement, other issues will continue to overshadow the release of our innocent family members. Nothing should be more critical to our nation than bringing home more than 59 Americans from the hands of from foreign countries that are detaining them just for being American,” they wrote in the letter, which was sent nearly two months after they rallied near the White House in May in hopes of securing a meeting with Biden.

“We don’t know what else to do”

Sharghi, who is part of the campaign leadership team, told CNN they chose to send the letter now “because the families feel there is no rush. and we don’t know what else to do, how else to be heard”.

“Only you can secure the restoration of their freedom by giving a direct mandate to your administration to quickly find solutions,” they wrote in the letter, noting that Biden is “a man of faith and compassion who understands the importance of family.”

In their letter, the families noted that they “have put (their) lives on pause for years to focus solely on rescuing our loved ones.”

“We wake up every day knowing that they are in so much more pain than we could imagine, so much so that many of them dread waking up. And, for them and our families, we get up and start again, day in and day out. We do everything we can as ordinary people, but we are sure that you are the only person who could end this trauma,” the families said.

Another member of the leadership team, Alexandra Forseth, whose father and uncle are being held in Venezuela, told CNN they had been working on the letter for a month. She said the White House acknowledged receipt of the letter but did not respond to the meeting request.

“Bringing our loved ones home is urgent and this administration doesn’t seem to understand that,” she said. “How many of our loved ones have to be near death or dying to care about getting results instead of platitudes that these cases are a ‘top priority’?”

A White House official told CNN they “have no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens abroad.”

“We can only imagine how difficult this time is for the families of those held hostage and who are wrongfully detained and the pain they are feeling. We remain in regular contact with them,” the official said. “We are grateful for their partnership and their feedback. And we continue to work to ensure that we communicate and share information in a way that is helpful to our families.”

Heath’s family, who is in stable condition in a military hospital in Venezuela following a suicide attempt, criticized the White House for not doing enough to secure his release.

“I wonder how I’m going to explain to his 13-year-old son that his dad isn’t coming home because the White House didn’t think saving him was important enough,” his aunt, Trudy Rutherford, said in a statement. Monday. His uncle Everett Rutherford, another member of the Bring Our Families Home campaign leadership team, told CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday that the family doesn’t think Heath is “out of the woods” and that they expect him to attempt to take his. life again.

There have been calls, particularly in the wake of Reed’s release from Russia in a prisoner exchange, for the administration to consider exchanges if that is what is needed to bring Americans home. them. In their letter, the families of the Bring Our Families Home campaign noted that they “are not indifferent to the moral and ethical questions posed by the use of crafts and other tools, but we know that you will understand that the value to bring home an innocent American wrongfully detained overseas far outweighs everything else.”

Although the bipartisan support for the exchange that secured Reed’s freedom was welcomed by the White House, prisoner exchanges remain rare and controversial and ultimately require a decision from the president. One of the main challenges is that the US government does not see an equivalence between those tried in the US justice system and the US citizens they consider wrongfully detained abroad.

Another argument against the use of prisoner swaps is the fear that it could encourage other countries to detain Americans to use as bargaining chips. Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center, which works on behalf of the families of those detained overseas, called the argument “intellectually lazy and morally bankrupt.” And Reed is urging the administration to consider more prisoner swaps if it means more Americans are freed.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.

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