Recent events — the release of Jacob Ostreicher, President Barack Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro and the ongoing diplomatic talks with Iran — may bode well for the fate of several Americans being held hostage overseas.
While each case is different, the outcomes of such figures as Alan Gross in Cuba and Robert Levinson in Iran may hinge on what former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is known for his efforts to free American hostages, termed combining “private and public pressure and government pressure.” Such a strategy “often succeeds,” he said, in convincing a foreign government to free an American captive.
Ostreicher, the Orthodox businessman who had been held against his will in Bolivia for more than two years, returned to America last month. In that case, the U.S. government worked behind the scenes, congressional hearings highlighted his captivity, the New York Orthodox community exerted pressure, and actor Sean Penn used his contacts to create a situation in which the father of five was able to flee his house arrest.
“In the case of Jacob Ostreicher, the government did do a lot,” said Richardson, crediting as well “very positive Jewish community pressure.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) used his position as senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold several hearings on behalf of Ostreicher, including one in which Penn testified. Penn’s presence piqued the interest of numerous news organizations, thereby sharing Ostreicher’s predicament with many who probably had never heard of him.
“I am overjoyed — and relieved — that Jacob is back in the United States after his unjust, grueling imprisonment in Bolivia,” said Smith. “Jacob’s case is a stark reminder of other Americans cruelly held captive, like Alan Gross in Cuba, Bob Levinson in Iran and Warren Weinstein kidnapped in Pakistan, and their heartbroken families waiting back home. We have to be persistent and always place them at the top of our diplomatic priorities.
“Last month, at a hearing I chaired of the global human rights subcommittee, members of Congress focused on Americans held hostage overseas,” he continued. “Congress and the administration must keep working in every possible bilateral and multilateral venue to bring these Americans home — and never let these cases grow cold or forgotten.”
Richardson agreed with the importance of keeping a hostage’s name in the news, both locally and in the country he is being held.
“I think what works is effective public pressure, raising the profile, quiet diplomacy within the government, stoking pressure points” and vocal support by whatever particular community group happens to be involved, he explained, noting that in the cases of Ostreicher, Gross and Levinson, the Jewish community has played a major role.
He pointed to the case of Gross, a State Department subcontractor who was arrested in December 2009 after a mission to hook up Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet, as one area in which world events might portend his eventual release. The simple yet controversial handshake between Obama and Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa “sends a message to bureaucrats” in both countries, said Richardson. “I think there is some movement, slight optimism.”
Gross, who has been serving a 15-year sentence for “crimes against the state” is “key to the United States and Cuba improving relations,” asserted Richardson. Releasing the Potomac, Md., man would go far in showing America that Cuba can be part of the world community.
The Cuban government, however, has linked the release of five accused Cuban spies currently held in prison or on probation in the United States in exchange for Gross’ freedom,
Richardson praised the weekly Monday vigils held outside the Cuban Interest Section in D.C., attended by members of the Maryland Jewish community and spearheaded by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
“It keeps it in the news,” he said. “It keeps the Obama administration aware.”
Richard Shore, Gross’ attorney, echoed that sentiment.
“We think it’s important for the administration to understand that there is wide and deep interest” in Gross’ fate, he said. Ostreicher’s freedom “really [does not] have any effect on Alan’s situation. Each of these situations are unique and has its own set of facts. Fundamentally, Alan’s situation is, he was sent to Cuba by the U.S. government, and yet the U.S. government has done essentially nothing.”
Shore, a partner at Gilbert LLC, said that his client needs the Obama administration to talk openly with the Cuban government. “We are not attempting to set the terms of the debates other than he needs to be released.”
JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber was equally pessimistic that Ostreicher’s freedom changed the calculus in any way as it relates to Gross.
“I don’t think one is related to the other. Alan is being held as a political prisoner. He is a casualty in the dysfunctional relationship” between this country and Cuba, explained Halber. “The reality is until the White House shows the political courage to make a deal to bring Alan home, Alan will sit there.”
The weekly vigils will continue, affirmed Halber, calling them “a long-standing promise to make sure there is awareness. It reminds the Cubans we are not going to drop it. Is the vigil enough to bring Alan home? Probably not. Is the vigil enough to keep him in the news? Yes.”
Richardson also credited the work of Gross’ wife, Judy, as key.
“She’s been sort of the point person,” he said, “but she’s done it in a very dignified way” through humanitarian appeals rather than political ones.
Levinson is another American being held against his will. The private detective and former FBI agent from Coral Springs, Fla., disappeared while in Iran in March 2007 while apparently researching a case. He is the father of seven children.
Richardson expects the American government to let Iran know that the release of Levinson would improve its standing in the world.
Last summer, the United States asked Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, “to work cooperatively with us” to free Levinson.
But in the case of Warren Weinstein of Rockville, who has been held by al-Qaida since August 2011, there is reportedly no one with whom to negotiate. The 72-year-old former Peace Corps and USAID official was kidnapped by that terrorist group when he was about to leave Pakistan. He had been in that country working for a private company.
“We are talking to Iran. We are not talking to al-Qaida. That’s where you need an out-of-the-box solution,” stated Richardson.
According to published reports, al-Qaida has demanded a halt to airstrikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen and the release of al-Qaida and Taliban members held in U.S. custody before it will allow Weinstein to go free.
Still, last month’s release of a video, in which Weinstein is shown pleading with Obama to secure his release, could be seen as a positive sign.
U.S. Rep. John Delaney, the Maryland Democrat who represents Weinstein’s hometown, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry following the release of the video. Delaney wrote that while he understands and respects the U.S. government’s policy not to negotiate with terrorists, “I encourage you, in the strongest sense possible, to do everything you can to work with Pakistan and our global partners to secure Warren’s release and bring him home to his family. Doing nothing is simply not an option.”
Delaney called the video “confirmation he was alive. That was obviously a big deal.”
Therefore, he said, America needs to “refocus its efforts” and come up with a strategy to raise awareness. “You really don’t know what works” so it is best to try several things.
When a hostage is freed, he noted, “you never really learn what was the final straw.”