First Steps

Confirming the Detention and Access to Your Loved One

The first U.S. government official to have contact with your loved one who has been detained overseas will likely be a consular official from the U.S. embassy or consulate from within the consular district where your loved one is located.  The Department of State is committed to ensuring fair and humane treatment for U.S. citizens detained overseas. Consular officers assist detained citizens and their families within the limits of our authority and in accordance with international, domestic, and foreign law.

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 international, domestic, and foreign law, including human rights law.

Our obligations under the Privacy Act of 1974 as well as Department policies may limit what we can share about any detained U.S. national with others, including family, friends, Congressional staff, and the media. If possible, consular staff will ask your loved one to sign a form, which specifies whom U.S. government officials may contact and to whom they may release information about your loved one under the Privacy Act.

Once a consular officer has confirmed the detention and location of your loved one, consular staff will make every effort possible to conduct in-person consular visits.  Where in-person visits are not possible, they will seek to check in via telephone or video conference.  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.  For more information about what consular officers can and cannot do for detained U.S. nationals overseas, please visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/emergencies/arrest-detention.html.

Wrongful Detention Assessment

Consistent with the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage–Taking Accountability Act, we will continually monitor and review the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas for indications of wrongfulness.  A discretionary wrongful detention determination is based on an assessment of the totality of the circumstances.  Although the facts of each detention case are different, the Department considers the relevant criteria outlined in the Levinson Act when making a determination.

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 the Secretary of State make this determination.  If your loved one has been arrested or detained abroad, please contact the Overseas Citizen’s Services Office at 1-888-407-4747 (From U.S. and Canada) or +1 202-501-4444 (From Overseas).

When the Secretary determines 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.

Initial Call with the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA)

As soon as the detention is determined to be wrongful, SPEHA will arrange a conference call with your family.  During this call, we will provide available information about the situation and try to answer any of your immediate questions.  We may ask for details about your loved one’s health history, travel plans, relationships, and other 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 team 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;
  • Actions taken by the government, including the SPEHA office, the Consular Affairs/American Citizens Services (ACS) office, and regional 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;
  • Plans to collaborate and communicate with your family and other advocates to safely secure the release of your loved one.
  • Support services and resources available to your family

Once the wrongful detention determination has been made, your U.S. government team will speak with you about a communication and support plan.  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.

You may have feelings of shock, anxiety, dread, and helplessness when you discuss your loved one’s wrongful detention 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 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 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 work tirelessly toward the goal of bringing your loved one home.

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

Actions that the U.S. government may take throughout the detention include, but are not limited to:

  • Continue to provide consular assistance– While other efforts are ongoing to secure the release, consular staff at the nearest embassy or consulate will continue provide all appropriate assistance, as provided in all detentions.  This includes monitoring 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. When possible, Consular staff can: deliver money you send your loved one through an Overseas Citizens Services Trust, ensure prison officials are providing appropriate medical care, communicate with family members, lawyers, friends, or employers in the United States, and ensure prison officials permit visits with a member of the clergy of the religion of the detainee’s choice.  Consular officers monitoring your loved one’s safety and security may also protest inhumane treatment and/or press for appropriate care while in detention. .
  • Engaging the other side – U.S. government officials will raise the unacceptable nature of your loved one’s wrongful detention at every possible opportunity.
  • Exerting media pressure– When it is not detrimental to negotiations to secure your loved one’s release, your U.S. government team may keep up public pressure to release your loved one.  Your government team can provide you with general guidance on media strategy and work closely with you to ensure that you understand the U.S. government’s media strategy on your loved one’s case.
  • Applying international pressure– When appropriate, the U.S. government will apply pressure in order to secure the release of those wrongfully detained.  This can include working with international organizations and other tools of diplomacy to increase support for the release of 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.   U.S. government officials 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.
    · 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.
  • Leading high-level meetings –The SPEHA, 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.
  • 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 work several lines of effort at the same time, and we will adjust our strategy as conditions change if that increases the likelihood of securing your loved one’s release.  We will be in frequent contact with you, 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, U.S. government officials 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.  We 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 U.S. government 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.

Your Partnership Is Key

While we have expertise in some areas, 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 U. S. government team has a preferred course of action at a particular time, we will be as open and straightforward as possible in explaining why we are pursuing that course of action.

Whether you prefer to work with us or not, we will continue to work to secure your loved one’s release.  Regardless of how active you are able to be on your loved one’s detention on a given day, know that we are working on securing your loved one’s release.  There will likely be ebbs and flows in the amount of information provided in updates on a case as your U.S. government team works to bring your loved one home, but your team remains committed to this ultimate goal.

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

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

The Levinson Act (22 U.S.C. 1741, enacted December 27, 2020) establishes a framework for wrongful detention determinations and codifies entities created by Executive Order 13698 and Presidential Policy Directive 30 (see below), namely SPEHA, the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, and the Hostage Response Group to direct policy.  It also mandates annual reporting to Congress on wrongful detentions, the creation of 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 direct executive branch agencies to coordinate their efforts to leverage “all instruments of national power” to safely recover U.S. nationals held hostage overseas.  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 ordeal.  EO 14078, released in July 2022, expanded upon existing legal provisions by, among other things, adding further detail on how sanctions and visa restrictions may be used in relation to hostage and wrongful detention cases.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future