US to ease policy on hostage releases

US officials negotiated a deal to exchange soldier Robert Bowdrie Bergdahl, held by a Taleban-aligned group in Afghanistan from 2009 until 2014, for five Taleban detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison.
US officials negotiated a deal to exchange soldier Robert Bowdrie Bergdahl, held by a Taleban-aligned group in Afghanistan from 2009 until 2014, for five Taleban detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison.

It won't threaten to prosecute US families negotiating to free loved ones

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama is set to announce that the government will no longer threaten to prosecute families of American hostages who are held abroad by groups like the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) if they try to pay ransom for the release of their loved ones.

The change is part of a broad overhaul he is ordering to fix what the administration has acknowledged is a broken policy on US captives, senior officials said.

Mr Obama has grappled in recent months with the dilemma inherent in the "no-concessions" policy of the United States towards hostage-takers, which stands in stark contrast to many European countries that routinely pay ransoms for captives.

In a presidential directive and an executive order, Mr Obama also plans to make clear that while he is keeping a longstanding federal prohibition against making concessions to those who take hostages, the government can communicate and negotiate with captors holding Americans or help family members seeking to do so in order to ensure their safe return.

The policy directive will make official and public what has long been the US government's unspoken practice in some hostage cases, but one that has been inconsistently applied and poorly understood inside federal agencies and among family members desperate to win the release of relatives.

"We needed to clarify that even as we have a no-concessions policy, we do not abandon families during a horrific ordeal," said one senior administration official.

"The prosecution threats, the official added, "should never have happened."

US officials negotiated a swop to win the freedom of soldier Robert Bowdrie "Bowe" Bergdahl, held captive by a Taleban-aligned group in Afghanistan from 2009 until 2014. He was traded for five Taleban detainees at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But officials have told the families of hostages held by ISIS and Al-Qaeda that the "no concessions" policy prevented them even from talking about potential terms of release, and warned them that they could face criminal charges for offering ransoms.

At times, families were given conflicting messages, as in the case of Mr Theo Padnos, who was held by the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda for nearly two years.

His mother, Ms Nancy Curtis, has said the State Department told her she could be prosecuted should she try to pay a ransom, while the FBI offered to help her execute such a transaction.

As part of the overhaul, the Department of Justice will issue a statement noting that the government has never prosecuted a family for paying a ransom and "does not intend to add to the families' pain in such cases by suggesting they could face criminal prosecution", according to officials.

Still, the overhaul will not fulfil one of the most urgent requests of hostages' families: that the White House name a senior-level coordinator - or "hostage czar" - with primary responsibility across the federal government for freeing American captives. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have announced plans to try to create such a position.

"We want one person who's responsible for implementing the US policies and who can keep the families informed and be available to them," said Democrat senator Benjamin Cardin, who introduced legislation on Tuesday to create the post.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'US to ease policy on hostage releases'. Print Edition | Subscribe