President Joe Biden on Tuesday paved the way for sanctions against governments that unjustly imprison Americans, ordering more detailed travel warnings after a series of high-profile arrests.
Biden signed an executive order billed as expanding the toolkit for the US government in what Secretary of State Antony Blinken said was a “relentless” effort to free citizens abroad.
“When Americans are taken abroad as captives, we must do everything in our power to secure their release,” Blinken said in a statement.
The move comes after widespread media coverage of the arrest in Russia on drug charges of basketball star Brittney Griner, whose wife initially said Biden was not doing enough.
The executive order authorizes government agencies to impose financial sanctions or travel bans on foreign officials or non-state actors involved in the wrongful detention of Americans.
“The use of sanctions may not always help secure someone’s release, so we will be judicious and strategic in our use of this authority,” a US official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“But families of detainees know the cases of their loved ones best, and we intend to hear from them, listen to their good ideas and listen to their recommendations,” he said.
The State Department, in its travel advisories for Americans, will also begin highlighting which nations have a heightened risk of wrongful detention.
The initial group of nations that will carry a “D” mark for risk of detention will be China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela, another official said.
Successive administrations have made the plight of prisoners and hostages a top priority.
Despite rising tensions over the Ukraine war, the Biden administration in April made arrangements with Russia to swap Trevor Reed, a former Marine jailed for allegedly attacking police while drunk, for a Russian pilot convicted of drug smuggling. .
On Iran, the Biden administration has insisted it cannot revive a languishing nuclear deal without the release of imprisoned Americans.
One of them, Siamak Namazi, a businessman convicted on charges he denies of trying to overthrow the clerical state, recently spoke from prison and urged Biden to secure his freedom regardless of nuclear diplomacy.
At least 11 Americans are known to be detained in Venezuela, although two others were freed in March following rare US contact with dictator Nicolás Maduro, a leftist leader deemed illegitimate by Washington.