US sanctions Iran and Russia over wrongful detentions

Russian and Iranian intelligence services hit with new penalties for holding Americans on 'bogus' charges

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is currently detained in Russia, at the Moscow City Court. AP
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The Biden's administration on Thursday announced sanctions against Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) and the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over their role in the wrongful detention of Americans.

At least two Americans, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former marine Paul Whelan, are currently being held by Russia on charges the US State Department has deemed wrongful.

“The FSB has repeatedly been involved in the arrest, investigation and detention of US nationals wrongfully detained in Russia,” a senior administration official told reporters.

In Iran, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz have been held for years on espionage charges that the US State Department has called “bogus”.

Mr Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, has been held since October 2015. Mr Tahbaz, a renowned conservationist, has been held since January 2018, while Mr Shargi recently marked five years in prison.

All three men and their families have called on the US to do more to secure their release.

The new sanctions take aim at the leadership structure of the Intelligence Organisation of the IRGC, including commander Mohammad Kazemi and his deputy Mohamad Sayyari.

“The IRGCIO frequently holds and interrogates detainees, including at least one wrongfully detained US national in Evin prison, and Evin prison has a long and sordid history of human rights abuses including extensive reports of torture,” the senior official said.

Stay strong, keep fighting, don't give up.
Brittney Griner, former detainee

The Biden administration has repeatedly said bringing wrongfully detained Americans home is a priority but several families of those held abroad have expressed frustration over their inability to meet the President.

"We have now brought home dozens of Americans, many of whom had been held since before I took office," President Joe Biden said in a statement.

"Still, too many are suffering and separated from their loved ones—including Americans who remain wrongfully detained in Russia, Iran and elsewhere.

"We remain unflinching in our efforts to keep faith with them and their families, to pursue new ways to bring them home until we succee, and to prevent this from happening to other families in the future."

In December 2022, the administration negotiated the release of basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

In her first press conference since her release, Griner on Thursday pledged to dedicate herself to bringing home other Americans detained abroad.

She said her message to other American detainees was: “Stay strong, keep fighting, don't give up.”

Elizabeth Whelan, sister of Mr Whelan, who has been held in Russia since 2018, welcomed the sanctions.

“I hope this is just the first stage of what will be a more forceful, and eventually multilateral, response to hostage-diplomacy,” she told The National.

Diane Foley, whose son Jim Foley was murdered by ISIS in August 2014 after being held hostage for nearly two years, echoed Ms Whelan's sentiments.

“I really feel we must hold people accountable for using people as part of their war strategy,” she told The National.

Ms Foley heads the James W Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of Americans detained abroad.

The foundation keeps a running tab on the number of Americans it believes have been wrongfully detained outside the US — a figure the State Department refuses to disclose.

The foundation's most recent data shows 53 Americans are currently being held by both state on non-state actors overseas.

“We have to begin to try various means to deter the practice and this is one step I feel in the right direction,” Ms Foley said.

Meanwhile, Axios reported that The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post would soon run a full-page advertisement calling for Gershkovich's release.

Updated: April 27, 2023, 9:17 PM