Families of US detainees ask White House to intercede
WASHINGTON — The release of Trevor Reed from a Russian prison last week was cause for unadulterated celebration for his family.
For Elizabeth Whelan, the experience was far more bittersweet.
When Whelan learned in an early-morning phone call from U.S. government officials that Reed was on his way home but that her brother, Paul, also imprisoned in Russia, was not, she says she uttered words that “cannot be repeated,” threw her phone onto the sofa in exasperation and knew she’d have to call her parents — in their 80s — to break the news.
“This is not something a normal family, just an everyday family, has to ever deal with. It is horrific,” said Whelan, whose brother is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that his family says are bogus. The U.S. government also considers Whelan’s detention unjust and officials have called on Russia to release him.
Reed’s release in a surprise prisoner swap triggered similar mixed emotions for the families of Americans wrongfully detained overseas. It has also emboldened them: They hope to build off that rare burst of momentum and employ the same publicity tactics that worked for the Reeds.
“I do think that the fact that they couldn’t get them both out at the same time has re-energized that effort, and I hope it brings back the attention to all of these cases,” Whelan said.
On Wednesday, relatives of American captives in countries including Venezuela, Iran and Rwanda gathered outside the White House on Wednesday to plead for the Biden administration’s attention and to launch a new initiative to
get their loved ones home. Several also urged the administration to consider additional prisoner swaps like the one that brought home Reed, who was exchanged for a convicted Russian drug trafficker.
Everett Rutherford, whose nephew, Matthew Heath, is jailed in Venezuela, said the Biden administration needs to display “courage” and “moral fiber.” He said “no one in Congress will ever bash” President Joe Biden over a deal that gets a wrongfully jailed American home. Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal, was arrested in 2020 in Venezuela and accused by President Nicolas Maduro of being a terrorist and spying for Donald Trump.
Reed’s release came one month after his parents traveled to Washington and stood outside the White House in hopes of getting a meeting with Biden, whose attention they had earlier tried to attract during a presidential visit to Texas. The Reeds got the meeting they sought, giving other families incentive to try to get in front of the administration too.
“You have to go the president — the one who’s going to have to make the tough decisions to solve these particular cases,” Elizabeth
Whelan said. “Either that, or there needs to be a better approach to wrongful detention so that we’re not constantly knocking on his door.”
The last week has yielded an unusual flurry of activity. Besides Reed’s release, Biden also met at the White House on Monday with the parents of Austin Tice, an American journalist abducted in Syria in 2012. Their meeting came after Tice’s mother, Debra, attended the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
The following day, the State Department announced that it had reclassified Brittney Griner, a WNBA star imprisoned in Russia on a drug-related charge, as wrongfully detained. The designation assigns her case to the office of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, which negotiates for the release of hostages and wrongful detainees.
In March, the U.S. secured the release of an American oil executive in Venezuela, Gustavo Cardenas, as well as another American jailed there. But five of Cardenas’ colleagues, known collectively as the “Citgo 6” for the Houston oil company where they all worked, were left behind.