Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not promise a meeting with President Joe Biden on Wednesday for the families of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad, but he sought to assure them that the administration is doing everything work to bring their loved ones home, according to a senior State Department official and sources familiar with the video call.
While the families largely enjoyed the conversation with the top US diplomat, some said they still hoped to meet the president and others left frustrated with what they see as a lack of urgency and concrete action. from the administration.
“Stop having meetings with us to tick the box and start doing things that actually make a difference for our families,” said Alexandra Forseth, whose father Alirio Zambrano and uncle Jose Luis Zambrano are part of. “CITGO 6” who were arrested. in Venezuela since 2017.
Saying she felt “gaslitized,” Zambrano said she had heard the same reassurances she had heard for years about prioritizing the cases of loved ones, but felt nothing was done.
During a reading of the appeal with the families, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken “let the families know that President Biden is aware of each of their loved ones’ cases. and pledges to bring all U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained home.” The call, which lasted over an hour, did not go into specific details due to the large number of participants – more than 50 – and privacy considerations.
The senior State Department official said “the families were very direct” on the call, noting that “they have every right to be.”
“Some have asked specific questions about – What is the status of my case? Do you know the medical condition of a specific person?” the official said. “We hear X, Y and Z from this person in particular, is the embassy involved in this? Do you talk to your counterpart about it? Does the president follow him?
The official told CNN that Blinken let the families know that “a meeting (with Biden) is not necessary for these cases to come to his attention, and it is certainly not necessary for us to take certain actions. and “repeatedly assured them” that Biden is fully engaged, as Blinken has had conversations with the President about the cases. The Secretary of State also indicated that White House planning was not in his power and said he would follow up with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the senior State Department official said.
A second senior State Department official said Blinken also spoke to Cherelle Griner, the wife of detained WNBA star Brittney Griner, one-on-one on Wednesday. The official did not provide further details about the call, which came after a State Department error prevented the couple from speaking on their anniversary.
Neda Sharghi, whose brother Emad Shargi has been unjustly detained in Iran since 2018, told CNN: “We are grateful to have received the call.”
“Our family will continue to request a meeting with the President to discuss Emad’s case, as we have for some time now,” she said, adding that the Bring Our Families Home campaign – a coalition of members families of illegal detainees who sent a letter to Biden this week — “will also continue to press for the administration to meet with families and prioritize hostages, act with urgency, and use all tools available.”
David Whelan, whose brother Paul Whelan has been wrongfully detained in Russia since 2018, said that “to the extent that this means the State Department and the White House remain fully engaged in wrongful detention cases, it was a good decision”.
“It is helpful to hear him speak directly to some of the larger issues and concerns facing our loved ones, as there is a universality of obstacles, despite the nuances of each case and each country involved,” he said. he declares. “Secretary Blinken’s time with these calls and cases gives me renewed hope that people are engaged, if not productive.”
Whelan, however, noted that he “didn’t come away with anything to make me think Paul’s case was any closer to being solved.”
Cristina Vadell, whose father, Tomeu Vadell, has been detained in Venezuela since 2017 as part of “CITGO 6,” told CNN she was grateful for Blinken’s engagement.
“He shows his commitment by taking time with the families, and I hope this commitment to bringing Tomeu and all his loved ones home will translate into more results in the near future,” she said.
However, she also noted that she believes “the frustration lingers until your loved one is no longer unjustly deprived of their liberty”.
“Every day is precious. Why wait another day to make a decision that will set someone free?” she said.
Following the call, Forseth added, “Every time we have one of these meetings, these officials say, ‘I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in your shoes’ and ‘I can never imagine it’, and ‘It must be awful.’ ”
“Instead of pretending like you can’t imagine, why don’t you try and then ask yourself, do you think you’re doing everything you can, and do you think you’re being honest with yourself about how much people are suffering because of your inaction?” she said.
The first senior State Department official told CNN Blinken led the call — the second by him where all families were invited — because he thought it was important given the attention to some of these cases in recent weeks, and he wanted to describe the administration’s “intensive efforts to continue to push at all levels, regardless of country or case, to bring them home.”
Blinken did not rule out the possibility of prisoner swaps during the conversation, according to the first official and familiar sources, but said such decisions would ultimately have to be made by the president.
“His general approach is that we should look at all available options, and that’s what he asked Roger Carstens and the SPEHA team – don’t hold back any options that you think could secure the release of a American, two Americans, whatever the number is in a particular country,” the first senior State Department official said, using the acronym for the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs.
The official also acknowledged that Blinken was concerned about the “moral hazard” of prisoner swaps and the possibility that they would lead to further detentions of Americans overseas.