(NEW YORK) — In September 2016, Kai Li stepped off a plane from the United States to his native China to visit relatives and attend a memorial for his late mother. He never returned.
The Chinese government had imprisoned the 59-year-old Li, an act the United Nations has condemned, and which his family says is based on bogus charges of espionage. A U.S. citizen who lived in Long Island, New York, since 1989, Li is only allowed to call his wife and son once a month for conversations that last just minutes.
His six-year absence has been “devastating,” said Harrison Li, his son. Not only did it throw his family into debt, but it also forced them to shutter two gas stations Li owned and operated as a way to make his family prosper in his adopted country, he said.
“Our government has failed us by allowing this to continue for so long,” he said. “They need to find the will and motivation to get him released.”
Li joins the chorus of dozens of families who say the Biden administration is failing to adequately confront a crisis that experts say is only getting worse. According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, a Washington organization that advocates for hostages and journalist safety, at least 67 U.S. citizens are currently being held overseas; 90 percent of those are wrongly detained by foreign governments hostile to the U.S.
Cynthia Loertscher, director of research, hostage advocacy and legislative affairs for the Foley foundation, says there is a greater interest among countries like Venezuela, Russia and China to use U.S. citizens as “geopolitical pawns” whose imprisonments can be leveraged to demand change in U.S. policy or to force concessions like a prisoner exchange.
“They become human collateral to try to get the United States to budge on its policies on a very large scale which is why these cases are so difficult to solve,” Loertscher said.
The problem, she said, “is absolutely” worsening as an increasing number of countries are testing the waters for potential gain.
Last week, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that allows federal agencies to impose financial sanctions and other consequences on parties involved in hostage-taking or wrongful detentions. It also creates a new State Department indicator to alert Americans where there’s a risk of being wrongfully detained by a foreign government.
Loertscher said the new tools show the administration is taking the issue seriously, but it is too soon to tell of its lasting effect considering the order did not name specific countries or cases like Li’s.
For Neda Sharghi, whose brother Emad has been wrongfully detained in Iran since 2018, she says nothing short of meeting with Biden directly will be satisfactory. Emad Sharghi, an American-Iranian dual citizen based in Washington, is one of at least four Americans wrongfully detained in Iran currently. Months after his capture more than four years ago, he was released, but not allowed to leave the country.
Two months before Biden took office, Emad Sharghi was rearrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for charges that remain unclear to his family.
Neda Sharghi said her family has written to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken but have not received a response from either. She said the issue “transcends politics” and should be one that both political parties could work on together.
Holding people captive fraudulently “cuts against every principle we as Americans hold onto,” Sharghi said.
“It’s baffling to me why it’s so difficult to get them released and why it isn’t a more focused priority for our administration,” she said.
A senior State Department official would not discuss specific cases with ABC News, but said that the new executive order is an example of the administration being “willing to make tough but important decisions” on the issue.
“Anyone who has worked on these issues for any period of time knows that strategies need to be case specific. They have to be informed by the intelligence and information about a particular case. They need to take into account country-specific facts, regional facts and anything we can bring to bear to get what we all ultimately want, which is an American home with his or her loved ones,” the official said.
Biden recently met with the families of Austin Tice, detained in Syria since 2012, and Trevor Reed, who was recently released from Russia in a prisoner exchange. Families say the media attention thrust on both cases, along with that of basketball star Brittney Griner, detained in Russia on drug charges, are bringing public awareness to an issue that for so many years has been lost in the news cycle.
For Alexandra Forseth, the “biggest obstacles” for families like her own “is not the government holding our own people — it’s our own government.”
Her father, Alirio Zambrano, and uncle, Jose Luis Zambrano, are members of the so-called “Citgo 6,” a group of Houston-based Citgo oil executives imprisoned in Venezuela since 2017 on corruption charges. Last year, the men were released under house arrest but in November were suddenly sent back to prison where conditions are so poor their families say they must purchase their clothes and food and ferry them in through intermediaries.
The arrests came around the same time the U.S. extradited a Colombian financier with close ties to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In February, a Venezuelan court upheld the executives’ prison sentences.
In March, the Biden administration announced the release of one member of the Citgo 6, Gustavo Cardenas, along with another American held in the country, Jorge Fernandez.
“We did get a couple of Americans out and that was a great thing,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this month regarding the release of the men. “But it was bittersweet because there’s a lot of Americans still there, and we’ve got to get them home.”
Forseth said her family has been working closely with Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs (SPEHA), a special State Department position created during the Obama years. While Carstens has “unanimous support” by the families, she said he and others working on their behalf are ultimately hindered by bureaucracy.
The characterization is supported by Loertscher who said these efforts ultimately need the full support of the administration to be fully effective.
“There are some people absolutely working their tails off for us. They are going way above what to do, but there are some people who are full-on obstacles to making creative solutions because don’t want to bring up these men as priorities to the president,” Forseth said.
“The short answer is, I’m mad at the people who won’t allow the negotiating process to be dynamic and swift,” she said.
Families banded by Bring Our Family Home, an organization tasked to raise the profile of the missing, unveiled a block-long mural in Washington last week that features the portraits of 18 loved ones being detained by foreign governments, including Griner and the Citgo 6.
“We would love it if President Biden came to look at it and hopefully inspire him to reach out and want to meet with us,” said Sharghi.
The project is also a catalyst for hope, something Li said, for him, is in short commodity over the years.
“There’s always hope and hope always gets dashed,” he said. “My father is still suffering behind bars.”
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