President Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday to improve efforts in bringing home Americans who have been held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.
Drawing on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act, the executive order authorizes the federal government to impose financial sanctions and visa bans on people who are believed to be involved in the wrongful detention of Americans, according to a White House press statement.
The order directs government agencies to share intelligence information with family members of individuals who have been detained or taken hostage, as well as increase engagement with and support for affected families. Experts across government agencies have also been tasked with developing “options and strategies to deter future hostage-takings.”
In addition to the executive order, President Biden introduced a new warning indicator — the letter “D” —to the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisories to warn Americans of the increased risk of being wrongfully detained by certain countries. Starting Tuesday, the warning indicator “D” will be applied to China, Myanmar, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran and Russia. It joins the “K” indicator, which covers the risk of kidnapping and hostage-taking.
The new executive order comes as the Biden administration faces ongoing criticism over a lack of aggressiveness in bringing American hostages and wrongful detainees home, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested at a Russian airport in February and has since been classified as wrongfully detained.
Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges earlier this month and could face up to 10 years in Russian prison if convicted. During her third hearing on Friday, her defense team presented three witnesses, all of whom are involved with UMMC Yekaterinburg, the Russian basketball team that she has played for since 2014. Maksim Ryabkov, the club’s director of operations, described Griner as a “unique player” whom he had recruited to play in Russia, NPR reported.
“There was no one close to her level. And thanks to Brittney, we won,” Ryabkov told the court. “Russian fans love her as both an athlete and a personality.”
Griner—who listened to the testimony from a locked defendant’s cage in the Russian courtroom—was moved by the testimony of her friends and colleagues, as she was reportedly seen crying.
In addition to presenting witnesses to defend Griner’s character, her lawyers on Friday gave the court various medical documents, including a letter from a U.S. doctor who prescribed her medical cannabis to treat pain from a chronic injury. Griner’s defense team also submitted anti-doping tests, which didn’t detect any prohibited substances in her system.
Griner has been detained in Russia for more than 150 days. Her trial will continue on July 26.
According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, there are at least 64 publicly known cases of Americans being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas. In the new executive order, President Biden declared a national emergency over hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of Americans, stating in a letter to Congress that the situation “constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
“This [Executive Order] reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally but to the families in particular, and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them and other stakeholders who have continued to undertake important constructive advocacy efforts on behalf of their loved ones,” a senior administration official said during Tuesday’s press briefing. “The president has been willing to make what he himself has said publicly are tough but important calls when it means bringing home Americans.”