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First Steps

Confirming the Detention and Access to Your Loved One

The first U.S. government official to reach out to your loved one overseas will likely be a consular official from the U.S. embassy or consulate representing the consular district where your loved one was arrested. Consular staff have the primary responsibility for the protection of U.S. nationals abroad.

The immediate consular priority overseas is to ensure that detained U.S. nationals have access to a consular official and are treated in accordance with the law, including human rights law. If possible, consular staff will also ask your loved one to sign a Privacy Act Waiver (PAW), which provides his/her preferences on how the U.S. government can share information with friends, family, Congress, the media, and others. A signed PAW can allow U.S. government officials to share information about your loved one, but is not necessarily required in all circumstances.

Once a consular officer has confirmed the detention and the location of your loved one, consular staff will make all efforts to conduct in-person consular visits where possible or check in via telephone or video conference in countries where the United States has no diplomatic presence. Officials from the embassy/consulate, when conditions permit, may also attend any public hearings and help provide information to the detainee regarding legal resources in country. Learn more about what consular officers can and cannot do for detained U.S. nationals overseas.

Wrongful Detention Assessment

If the circumstances of your loved one’s detention suggest that he or she was arrested on discriminatory or arbitrary grounds, the Department will determine whether the detention is “wrongful.” This discretionary determination is an assessment of the totality of the circumstances and is not a legal determination. Though every assessment will be different based on specific factors, the Department will consider the criteria outlined in the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage–Taking Accountability Act when making an assessment.

Family members can be key sources of information for these determinations, as they may have details about purpose of travel, itinerary, background, or other issues that will help these officials make this determination. If you have any questions about how this determination is made, please contact your Family Engagement Team.

When the Secretary determines that an individual has been wrongfully detained, various offices throughout the State Department and other U.S. government agencies will work collaboratively with colleagues inside and outside the government to develop a strategy to secure their release. Part of the strategy will include whether or not to message the wrongful detention determination either publicly or privately in diplomatic engagements, so it is always a good idea to discuss your social media and public statement plans and media engagement with the Family Engagement Team.

Initial Call with SPEHA and HAU

As soon as the detention is determined to be wrongful, SPEHA and the HAU will arrange a conference call with your family. During this call, we may provide any known information about the situation, and try to answer any of your immediate questions. We may ask for details including the status of your loved one’s health, travel plans, relationships, and other potentially useful information.

Informational Family Briefing

Shortly after your initial call, SPEHA will arrange a follow up briefing either in-person or via conference call with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to provide more information to you. The informational family briefing will cover:

  • What is currently known about the situation, if permitted by the Privacy Act;
  • Background information on the country where you loved one is wrongfully detaining;
  • The whole of government response, including the SPEHA office, the HAU, and regional desk offices, as well as the roles and responsibilities of any other key federal agencies;
  • An overview of wrongful detentions, resources and options for resolution and return, and U.S. policy;
  • How we in the U.S. government plan to collaborate with your family and other advocates to safely secure the release of your loved one; and
  • Support services and resources available to your family;
  • Your preferences for how you want us in the U.S. government to communicate with you.

You may have feelings of shock, anxiety, dread, and helplessness when you discuss that your loved one is wrongfully detained abroad. You may feel overwhelmed by the many things to do, people to interact with, and information to absorb. This is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. If you do not understand, or if you forget the information people are providing you, ask for clarification. Continue asking questions until you have the answers that make sense to you.

Continuing U.S. Government Actions

The U.S. government is committed to maintaining contact with you through continued informational briefings, either by conference call or in-person, until the wrongful detention ends. You may also decide that you prefer limited or no contact. Every wrongful detention is different, and there is no one pre-determined way to secure the safe release of a person who has been wrongfully detained overseas. With this in mind, you and your U.S. government team will review and consider a range of options over the course of the detention. While we cannot know beforehand what series of events will lead to your loved one’s release, please know that the U.S. government will continue to work tirelessly towards the goal of reuniting you with your family member.

Actions the U.S. Government May Possibly Take to Support Your Loved One

Possible actions that the U.S. government will take throughout the detention include, but are not limited to:

  • Pursuing and seeking to maintain consular access – While other efforts are ongoing to secure the release, consular staff at the nearest embassy or consulate will continue to monitor your loved one’s conditions in detention through regular visits when possible (either in-person or virtually). This can be difficult where the detention is in a hostile state or location where the United States has a limited presence. If allowed by the authorities, consular staff can deliver money through an Overseas Citizens Services Trust. Consular officials will also ensure to the best of their ability that your loved one has regular access to legal counsel, communication with the outside (including family members in the United States, if possible), contact with clergy, and all needed medical attention.
  • Host country engagement – If your loved one is detained by a foreign government, the State Department may continue to raise the unacceptable nature of your loved one’s wrongful detention, as appropriate, with that country’s government. State Department officials can also protest inhumane treatment and press for appropriate care while in detention.
  • Exerting media pressure – When it is not detrimental to negotiations to secure your loved one’s release, your U.S. government team may use the resource of its public affairs professionals to keep up the media pressure to release your loved one. You and your U.S. government team can work in tandem on this media strategy. See the Working with the Media page for more information.
  • Applying international pressure – We will apply pressure in order to secure the release of those wrongfully detained. This can include using international organizations and other tools of diplomacy to increase pressure to release your loved one.
  • Building diplomatic coalitions – Other countries may have their own unique diplomacy tools at their disposal that we can use to help secure your loved one’s release. The State Department will continue to work with other countries however necessary in order to secure the release of your loved one. This may include outreach to, and collaboration with, foreign governments that:
    · Share U.S. views on the practice of wrongful detentions;
    · Have volunteered to serve as an intermediary between the United States and the party/ies wrongfully detaining your loved one;
    · Serve as a protecting power or otherwise represent U.S. interests in countries where the United States does not have an operating Embassy;
    · Are involved due to the detainee possessing citizenship of another country in addition to U.S. nationality; or
    · Face similar issues with their own nationals in the country where your loved one is wrongfully detained.
  • Monitoring intelligence – Intelligence is information gathered inside or outside the United States that involves threats to our nation and its people, or any other matter bearing on U.S. national security. Intelligence can provide insights not available elsewhere that warn of potential threats or opportunities. Understanding these conditions can help inform our options for securing the release of your loved one. Your U.S. government team likely will not be able to share all intelligence with you, but they will be as open and straightforward with you as possible and appropriate.
  • Leading high-level meetings – The Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, as a direct representative of the President of the United States, has the ability to hold high-level meetings both domestically and overseas. The SPEHA can use the meetings to raise the profile of your loved one and, where possible, negotiate a release. These meetings highlight the importance of the release of wrongful detainees as a policy priority, and the U.S. government interest in seeing that happen.
  • Sharing information – The U.S. government and your family are a team, and the better the information sharing, the more effective the team. We encourage as much openness and information-sharing as fits your comfort level, while also recognizing that we ourselves may not be able to share everything with you. If you are in direct contact with your loved one while they are in detention, your updates will be extremely helpful to the efforts of the broader team working to secure your loved one’s release.

We, as your U.S. government team, will likely be working on several lines of effort at the same time, and we will change course as conditions change if that increases the likelihood of securing your loved one’s release. Throughout the detention we will be in frequent contact, and we encourage you to ask any and all questions that you have.

Actions the U.S. Government May Not Be Able To Take

Typically, when a U.S. national is detained overseas, State Department staff often have specific boundaries within which they must work. We cannot represent a detainee in court overseas, for instance, but we can provide a list of attorneys in that country who may be able to assist. Department staff usually cannot serve as official interpreters or translators, but your U.S. government team can work with you to help understand options for getting official translations of foreign court documents, if needed. Another area where the Department is limited is the ability to pay legal or medical fees for those detained. Please note, however, that your U.S. government team recognizes the unique nature of these wrongful detentions, and even if we cannot find ways to defray the costs to your family, we are committed to helping explore all possible financial resources. Please see the Legal and Financial Considerations page and the Additional Resources page for more information.

Your Partnership Is Key

While we have expertise in the country where your loved one is detained, wrongful detentions, and other issues, you are the expert on your loved one. The efforts to secure your loved one’s release are strongest when everyone is working together. When the Family Engagement Team has a preferred course of action at a particular time, we will be as open and straightforward in explaining why we are pursuing that particular course of action. Again, please ask all the questions you need and raise your concerns if you are not sure how to proceed.

Once the wrongful detention determination has been made, your Family Engagement Team will speak with you about a Communication and Support Plan. This is a tool to help document what your communication preferences are – whether you’d like ongoing contact or just contact when there are updates to share, how you’d prefer to communicate, and any other concerns you might have. In this time of turmoil and anguish, we want to be as accommodating as possible to you. Hopefully this tool can help make our communication effective and respectful of your needs.

Whether you work with us or not, we will continue to work towards securing your loved one’s release. There may be days when you are able to focus on your loved one’s situation and other days where you need to focus on self-care or other issues. Regardless of how active on your loved one’s detention you are able to be on a given day, know that we are working on securing your loved one’s release.

Information Ebbs and Flows

Wrongful detentions can be prolonged affairs. There may be times when there are so many updates that it feels difficult to keep up with everything. There may be other times when there seems to be no progress, no information, and no movement in your loved one’s situation. You may feel like your loved one does not receive priority, or that you are not being told all of the information available. Please communicate your concerns to your Family Engagement Team, and they will help explain the situation as clearly as possible, even if they cannot share all of the details.

There are a number of potential factors that impact the pace of a wrongful detention. There are times when there is simply little new information or developments, and then other times when contradictory information arises that requires closer review to determine the true situation. It may be difficult to obtain timely or accurate information about events occurring in a country marked by chaos, corruption, opacity, or conflict. If the United States does not have an operating embassy or consulate in the country where your loved one is being held, that can make

information and intelligence gathering that much more difficult. You may also see rumors or misinformation coming from different media sources, and this can further confuse efforts to clarify our understanding of the actual conditions on the ground. Stay in contact with your Family Engagement Team for the latest information about what efforts are under way, what the information needs and challenges are, as well as any questions you might have.

Opposition from the Host Nation Government

The government of the country wrongfully detaining your loved one may be as committed to wrongfully detaining your loved one as the U.S. government is to securing their release. Wrongful detentions are some of the most difficult cases to resolve in some of the most complex countries on the planet. Inevitably there will be up’s and downs throughout your loved one’s detention. U.S. government engagements with the detaining government and with your loved one will comply with international and/or bilateral treaties, as well as internal U.S. government policy. Despite the challenges, we remain committed to doing everything we can to bring your loved one home.

U.S. Government Policy in Wrongful Detentions

While the U.S. government offices involved in wrongful detention cases all have their own individual policies and procedures, there are two key documents that drive and inform the U.S. government’s hostage policy.

Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-taking Accountability Act (Levinson Act)

The Levinson Act (P.L. 116-260, enacted December 27, 2020) codifies entities created by Executive Order 13698 and PPD-30 (see below), namely the HFRC, SPEHA, and the Hostage Response Group to direct policy, and expands these entities’ areas of focus to include wrongful detentions. It also mandates annual reporting to Congress on wrongful detentions, the creation of a resource guidance for families, and authorizes discretionary sanctions against those responsible for or complicit in wrongful detention.

Executive Order (EO) 13698 & Presidential Policy Directive 30 (PPD-30)

EO 13698 and PPD-30 focus primarily on hostage-taking. Issued in June 2015, EO 13698 and PPD-30 reaffirm the U.S. government’s commitment to the safe and rapid recovery of U.S. nationals held hostages overseas and directs executive branch agencies to coordinate their efforts to leverage “all instruments of national power” to safely recover U.S. nationals held hostage.

PPD-30 expands on the long-standing “no concessions” policy (which seeks to deny the benefit of concessions to hostage-takers) by clarifying that this policy does not prevent the government from communicating, directly or indirectly, with hostage-takers. PPD-30 maintains that hostage-taking is a violation of federal law, and that the U.S. government will prosecute and punish hostage-takers overseas. Lastly, PPD-30 states the U.S. government’s aim to coordinate and work closely with the families of hostages, to share as much information with families as possible, and to provide families with assistance and support services through the captivity and prosecution.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future