COVID-19 Was Catalyst in Fight to Free Detained Americans

COVID-19 Was Catalyst in Fight to Free Detained Americans
Guila Fakhoury via AP
COVID-19 Was Catalyst in Fight to Free Detained Americans
Guila Fakhoury via AP
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It was 4 a.m. Eastern time when the lawyer for now-freed American Amer Fakhoury dialed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen from Lebanon with an urgent plea for help.

“We were having issues with the court because it was really a sham hearing and it was all over the Lebanese news. They weren’t allowing U.S. Embassy [officials] to be present and were really giving us a hard time,” the detainee’s lawyer, Celine Atallah, told RealClearPolitics.

To Atallah’s surprise, Shaheen answered the call herself that early morning last fall and quickly followed through with phone calls to Trump administration and Lebanese officials.

The pre-dawn exchange was just one of many key moments in the cross-continental seven-month fight to secure the safe return of Fakhoury, a Lebanese-born naturalized American citizen and New Hampshire restaurant owner jailed in his native country last fall. The Lebanese government had leveled decades-old murder and torture charges that he and the U.S. government say have no merit.

Fakhoury’s advocates say Shaheen and her top foreign policy staffer, Naz Durakoglu, were engaged in a 24/7 diplomatic -- and often contentious -- campaign to free Fakhoury from the brutal treatment he was receiving in a Beirut prison.

“Sen. Shaheen was involved from Day 1. New Hampshire should be proud of a senator like this – who will not put up with one of her constituents being unlawfully detained,” Atallah said.

Guila Fakhoury, Amer Fakhoury’s daughter, has said Lebanese officials had signed off on her father’s travel to Beirut before he left the U.S. last September to visit siblings he hadn’t seen for more than 20 years. She said her dad was kidnapped and his passport confiscated after he turned it over to Lebanese authorities who claimed to be doing a background check on him. While in prison, his family say Fakhoury was subjected to unsanitary conditions and acquired the Epstein-Barr virus, which they believe led to a subsequent cancer diagnosis.

After Fakhoury was imprisoned, his family enlisted the help of Shaheen and began pleading with Trump administration officials to press the Lebanese government to release him. The administration in early December lifted a mysterious months-long hold on $105 million in military aid to Lebanon that budget officials had imposed without explanation. Trump’s National Security Council had asked the Office of Management and Budget to freeze the aid and media reports likened it in some ways to the hold on Ukrainian military aid that fueled the Democrats’ impeachment investigation last year.

The State Department and Shaheen have not yet said whether the hold had anything to do with tense negotiations with the Lebanese government over Fakhoury’s release, but knowledgeable sources believe those negotiations played a role in delaying the funds.

Without Shaheen and the help of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NSC officials, Fakhoury, who is suffering from stage-four lymphoma, likely would have died in a Lebanese prison, Atallah said.

Now he is home with a chance at recovery.

Trump announced from the White House on Thursday that Fakhoury had been released from prison, describing the development as “very big” and giving his administration credit for the negotiations that secured his freedom.

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, Trump and Pompeo have touted a redoubled effort to bring more detained Americans home. Trump also said his administration is working hard to secure the release of American journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared in Syria in 2012. The push to free Americans imprisoned overseas, even as the nation is consumed by the coronavirus, is giving family members a ray of hope amid the gloomy global crisis.

Separately, Pompeo on Thursday announced that Iran, so hard hit by the coronavirus that it has released 85,000 prisoners in an effort to contain it, had freed American Michael White on a medical furlough. White, a Navy veteran who was visiting his girlfriend in Iran when he was imprisoned in July 2018, suffers from throat cancer and his family is heralding his release as the difference between a death sentence and a chance at recovery.

(Tehran has yet to free several other Americans, including dual U.S.-Iranian citizens Siamak and Baquer Namazi, even though 83-year-old Baquer Namazi’s health is failing.)

Over the weekend, Trump also made an oblique reference to a secretive U.S. military overseas operation that helped free an American woman after she had been “horribly accosted.” Trump said she is now “at home with her parents,” although the administration has yet to provide more details.

Trump, Pompeo and other officials have called on Iran to release all Americans still held there and have pressed Venezuela and Syria to do the same.

“We’re aware of what Iran has been doing with some of the prisoners given the outbreak of Wuhan virus there,” Pompeo said early last week. “We’re aware they are thinking about whether to release them or not. Everyone should know we’re working on it.”

Trump, when announcing Fakhoury’s release, thanked the Lebanese government, saying, “They worked with us, and we are very proud of his family … and they are thrilled.”

Later the same day, State Department officials said that because of Fakhoury’s and White’s cancers, U.S. officials used the added danger of the coronavirus to press both the Lebanese and Iranian governments that it was time to release them.

Still, in celebrating Fakhoury’s freedom, no one in the administration mentioned Shaheen’s integral role or the key assists from Sen. Ted Cruz and others on Capitol Hill. A State Department spokesperson referred RCP to Pompeo’s public statements and Shaheen’s office for further details.

Both Brian Hook, a senior policy adviser to Pompeo, and David Schenker, the assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs, said no “outside interlocutors” were involved in securing Fakhoury’s and White’s freedom. They could have been referring to the fact that no foreign government officials were involved in interceding on the two jailed Americans’ behalf, although the Swiss government provided White refuge and care after Tehran granted him a medical furlough.

Atallah and others familiar with the details of the seven-month effort to free Fakhoury say coronavirus may have been the final catalyst, but Shaheen, with help from Cruz and others on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Atallah also stressed that Fakhoury is a “big supporter” of Trump and is eternally grateful for the president’s decision to make freeing jailed Americans overseas a top priority even amid a global health crisis.

Shaheen, along with several other senators, also was deeply involved in the push for the release of North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, who was detained in Turkey for two years on trumped up charges and released in late 2018. Brunson became a cause celebre for evangelicals across America who pressed his cause on social media and credited Trump for his safe return home.

When it comes to Fakhoury, Shaheen was the first to press his case with the White House and State Department and she also argued for urgent action during several Senate committee and subcommittee hearings.

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and U.S. permanent resident released from an Iranian prison last year, helped provide moral support to the Fakhoury family and created political back channels with Lebanon officials, connecting them with U.S. officials and Fakhoury’s advocates, sources familiar with the negotiations told RCP.

With his ties to both nations, Zakka wanted to help normalize the Lebanon-U.S. relationship that was quickly degrading with the threat of new sanctions. If Fakhoury had died on Lebanese soil, the relationship would have suffered a major blow, the sources said.

“Thank you to Senator Shaheen and Nizar Zakka for their moral courage in bringing Amer home,” the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation tweeted on Friday. The foundation, founded by the family of the American journalist slain by ISIS in 2014, is a leading advocacy group for freeing American prisoners unlawfully detained abroad.

After months of negotiations with the Lebanese government without a breakthrough, the real tipping point came when Shaheen and Cruz in late February unveiled a bill that would impose biting sanctions against Lebanese officials involved in the unlawful arrest and detainment of any U.S. citizen.

In announcing the measure, Shaheen and Cruz accused the terrorist group Hezbollah of using the case to sow internal political discord in Lebanon. Sens. Jim Risch and Bob Menendez, the chairman and ranking member of the panel, quickly moved the legislation through committee.

“When the bipartisan sanctions bill was introduced, that put everybody in Lebanon on notice,” Atallah said. “Hezbollah doesn’t care about sanctions, but their allies care.”

Shaheen and State Department officials have sworn that no concessions or exchanges were made to secure Fakhoury’s safe return.

The senator, whose husband is Lebanese-American and who has long pressed for stronger ties between the two nations, said she too believed Lebanese officials viewed the sanctions bill as a motivating factor to free Fakhoury. Shaheen told reporters on a conference call late last week that she decided to introduce the bill when progress on the case suddenly stalled.

The last two weeks leading up to Fakhoury’s release were especially tense for his family and Atallah, who had been on the ground in Lebanon for months pressing the case for his freedom. When the Lebanese government released him, Dorothy Shea, the newly minted ambassador to Lebanon, offered her  residence in Beirut to Fakhoury, his wife and his attorney prior to their departure for the United States.

With Fakhoury en route home, Shaheen late last week thanked Atallah as well as National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, NSC staffer Virginia Boney, Roger Carstens, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs who replaced O’Brien in that position, as well as Shea and several other top State Department officials, including Pompeo and Schenker.

“This is exactly how our government should work,” she told reporters. “… Congress and the administration came together on a bipartisan basis to work together to help Americans in need.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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