Washington — The number of U.S. nationals wrongfully detained overseas decreased for the first time in a decade, according to a new report, as the plight of Americans unjustly imprisoned abroad has garnered national attention with a series of high-profile prisoner swaps.
The release of 21 U.S. nationals last year was “the largest number of publicly known wrongful detention releases in one year,” according to the report released Wednesday by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for the freedom of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. The foundation has tracked cases dating to 2001.
The decline comes as more Americans in recent years have been detained by foreign governments on what the U.S. says are politicized or unsubstantiated charges, prompting President Biden to declare it a national emergency.
“Since 2012, there has been a significant rise in the number of wrongful detentions of U.S. nationals. However, the number of U.S. nationals who continue to be held year after year decreased by 31% after August 1, 2022,” the report said, citing 21 releases in 2022 and four this year.
The report’s findings do not include the release of five Americans who are expected to return home in the coming weeks as part of a deal with Iran that included the U.S. lifting a freeze on $6 billion in Iranian money.
Wrongful detentions tracked by the foundation are not solely based on the State Department making an official designation, the report’s author, Cynthia Loertscher, told CBS News. The process for how the State Department makes a determination is opaque, but both the department and the foundation consider the criteria outlined in theRobert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which became law in 2020.
The foundation says at least 53 people currently are wrongfully detained. Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, said in July that his office is handling about 30 to 40 cases. It’s unclear if he was referring to only wrongful detainee cases or hostage cases as well. An American detainee is considered a hostage by the U.S. when they are held by a non-state actor, such as a terrorist group.
“For reasons of privacy and operational security, we do not always publicly disclose wrongful detention determinations. We do not comment on internal deliberative processes regarding these determinations, and we do not make public the number of wrongful detention cases,” a State Department spokesperson told CBS News, adding that the department “continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas.”
China, Iran, Russia and Venezuela are responsible for most of the wrongful detentions, the report said.
It also noted that the wrongful detention releases in 2022 and thus far in 2023 were facilitated through a variety of methods, not just prisoner swaps that were negotiated by the U.S. government.
A dozen releases were resolved through diplomatic engagement and involvement with a non-governmental organization; five involved diplomatic engagement only; three were attributed to a third party only; one involved a payment by the family; one was due to congressional engagement only.
The report attributed the “significant” decrease in the number of wrongful detainees in the last year to “the maturation of the U.S. hostage enterprise and the empowerment of interagency leadership.”
It also offered a number of U.S. policy recommendations, including developing a strategy to deter wrongful detentions as well as requiring the State Department to be more forthcoming about whether or not cases have been classified as wrongful detentions.