National Press Club

U.S. must 'do better' to stop unjust detainment of Americans abroad, says panel

April 3, 2019 | By Louise D. Walsh | ldwalsh@earthlink.net

Panelists Diane Foley, president and founder of the James W. Foley Foundation, and Washington Post journalist Ja n Rezaian, discuss crimes against Americans abroad at the National Press Club on April 2.

Panelists Diane Foley, president and founder of the James W. Foley Foundation, and Washington Post journalist Ja n Rezaian, discuss crimes against Americans abroad at the National Press Club on April 2.

Photo/Image: Alan Kotok

The United States must become more effective in holding foreign nations and groups accountable for crimes against Americans unjustly detained abroad, agreed panelists at a National Press Club Journalism Institute event Tuesday.

“We must do better,” said Diane Foley, president and founder of the James W. Foley Foundation named after her murdered son. Foley appeared on a panel that included Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist who was imprisoned 544 days in Iran, and Brett McGurk, the diplomat who negotiated his release.

“We must find ways to have the backs of our brave Americans—as journalists, aid workers, educators or those just traveling,” said Foley, whose son, a freelance war correspondent, was abducted in Syria in 2012 and beheaded two years later.

“Unless we hold people accountable for their crimes, unless there’s some deterrent, [they’ll] just keep doing it! They’ll continue to take our citizens,” she said.

Rezaian, recounting his imprisonment in Iran, said “In July 2014, my wife and I were at home. We were ambushed, blindfolded, taken at gunpoint to a prison, thrown in solitary confinement; months of interrogation began immediately, and at no point allowed a lawyer"

“It destroyed my life in the country I chose to work and live,” he said. Although his release was negotiated, he noted that state-sponsored hostage-taking increases daily.

For accountability, Rezaian said he favors first separating hostage cases into state-held hostages, pirates and other terrorist groups, developing different “playbooks’ for each. “We need to develop better deterrent plans,” he said.

McGurk, who negotiated Rezaian’s release as a U.S. presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, singled out the appointment of a special presidential envoy on hostage affairs as an example of continuity between the previous and current U.S. administrations. He stressed making sure “there’s a historical record of what these terrorists actually did.”

On that point, Rezaian has sued the Iranian government. “I want a historical document, an official accounting of what happened [to me and my family]," he said, hoping his action serves as a deterrent

Another panelist, Terrence Rynne, founder of the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette University, said he views hostage-taking from a restorative justice angle that gives victims and all closely affected by these terrorist acts their own voice. He called for a major public trial in absentia sponsored by “a legitimate organization” where ISIS can be indicted in the eyes of the world.

Rynne and a fifth panelist, Karim Khan, a British international criminal law expert and special U.N. adviser leading a new U.N. investigative team on ISIS crimes in Iraq, both cited the lessons of the Nuremberg trials. When those crimes met “the harsh glare of the law,” Khan said, “the principles of fascism disintegrated.” There is no statute of limitation for war crimes.

“Saying we don’t negotiate with terrorists is a terrible opening gambit,” added Rynne, noting that France and the United States are on opposite ends of the hostage continuum. “France gets 98 percent of hostages back while we and England get about 25 percent.”

Hostage-taking can end or reduce news coverage: “It’s been five years since anyone from the Washington Post has been in Iran,” Rezaian said. “I’m not going back.”

Moderating the event was Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.