As US Brings Home Large Numbers of Jailed Americans, Some Families Are Still Waiting for Their Turn

WASHINGTON — By any standard, the past 18 months have been remarkable for getting wrongfully detained Americans home. There were major swaps with adversaries like Iran and Russia, including one that secured the freedom of WNBA star Brittney Griner, and a large prisoner exchange just last month with Venezuela.

But Harrison Li has had little to celebrate. Despite the succession of high-profile releases, jubilant family reunions and triumphant photos on government airplanes, his father, Kai, remains detained in China on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus and politically motivated.

Li, a Stanford University doctoral student, says though he feels “so much joy and happiness” for the other families — many of whom he’s become friendly with over the years — “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that then the next thought is, you know, when’s it our turn?”

He added, “When you see so many folks come home but then you still see your loved one not, then, yeah, there’s definitely an element of frustration.”

Li is not alone. For all the releases of wrongly detained Americans, many more remain either locked up or missing in countries including Russia, Syria and Afghanistan — often held by a hostile foreign government. In some instances, there have been few signs of progress, and families have sometimes seen the countries that are holding their loved ones release other detainees but not yet their relatives.

Those sensitivities are not lost on Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and the Biden administration’s public face for matters related to hostages and wrongful detainees — the label applied to Americans jailed in foreign countries for what the government considers legally specious allegations or for improper motivations.

He handles negotiations with foreign governments and once the deal is done flies out to bring the released American back, routinely telling them that on behalf of the U.S. government, “I’m here to take you home.”

“There’s always a very short-lived celebration because we still have a lot of work to do to bring other people home,” Carstens said in an interview.

The Biden administration has been notably aggressive in cutting deals, signing off on prisoner exchanges and other concessions that would once have been unthinkable and achieving releases at what advocates say is a historically high level. U.S. officials have called bringing home wrongfully detained Americans a core administration priority even when it collides with other foreign policy or law enforcement interests, though in all cases, the ability to achieve a deal depends on negotiators reaching mutually agreeable conditions — no small thing when countries otherwise have little they agree on.

Last month, Venezuela freed 10 Americans and returned to the U.S. for prosecution an indicted Navy contractor known as “Fat Leonard” in exchange for the U.S. releasing an ally of President Nicolas Maduro charged in a money-laundering conspiracy. In September, five Americans jailed for years in Iran walked free in a deal that saw the release of nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets. Months earlier, Rwanda freed Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda,” after a diplomatic intervention by the U.S.

And in 2022, the U.S. swapped an imprisoned Taliban drug lord for an American contractor in Afghanistan, and a notorious Russian arms trafficker for Griner.

As hostage diplomacy has generated front-page news and become a key area of focus — elevated in part by the October capture of scores of hostages in Israel by Hamas — families of detainees have jostled for attention from the U.S. government, including from President Joe Biden himself.

The president has met with some families — he had in-person and virtual conversations with families of American hostages held in Gaza — though some, like Li, are still seeking their first encounter.

Kai Li, a Chinese immigrant who started an export business in the U.S., was detained in September 2016 after flying into Shanghai. He was placed under surveillance, interrogated without a lawyer and accused of providing state secrets to the FBI. The U.S. government has designated him as wrongfully detained. A United Nations working group has called his 10-year prison sentence arbitrary.

Complicating the matter are diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China, which view each other as strategic rivals. Harrison Li regards last November’s summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping as a missed opportunity to more forcefully move his father’s case toward resolution, and wonders what additional steps can be taken.

“You think, OK, what else can you do? What is something that you’re not doing properly or you could do better or you could do more of?” Li said.

Maryam Kamalmaz has had no trace of her father, Majd Kamalmaz, since the psychologist from Texas was stopped at a checkpoint in Syria in 2017 after traveling there to visit a family member. He remains one of several Americans missing in Syria, including journalist Austin Tice, despite a 2020 visit by Carstens to try to negotiate their release.

“Other families know their loved ones’ condition. They know what’s going on. In my father’s case, there’s been no trial, there’s been no case. There’s nothing against him. He’s just basically disappeared into their system, disappeared completely,” said Kamalmaz.

Part of Carstens’ job involves regular communication with families. Sometimes the updates are cheerful, sometimes they’re painful.

Just before Griner’s release, a representative from his office visited the sister of Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan detained in Russia since December 2018, to break the news in person that Griner would be coming home but that Moscow had refused to free Whelan s part of a swap.

Carstens said deals like that, in which a detainee from one country is released but another is not, are “no small thing” and weigh heavily on his team.

“Unless someone’s coming off a plane, onto a tarmac, in the United States of America and into the arms of their loved ones, we’re not getting a win,” he said.

Whelan’s brother, David, released a statement upon Griner’s release trumpeting her freedom while noting the “public disappointment” of his brother’s continued imprisonment.

In an interview, David Whelan said he feels elated when detainees return, though he acknowledged his feelings are more nuanced when it has come to deals with Russia that don’t involve his brother. He laments that his brother is not home, but also doesn’t believe that the U.S. government has diverted resources to other detainees.

At the end of the day, Whelan said: “I think the enemy is the Kremlin. And the people who can make the decision are in the Kremlin.”

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