US Holds First Day to Commemorate American Hostages

WASHINGTON — The United States on Saturday marks its first U.S. Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Day to commemorate Americans being held abroad.

First designated last year by bipartisan House and Senate legislation, the day marks the anniversary of the kidnapping of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who was considered to be the longest-held American hostage in history.

The legislation also created an official flag as a symbol to recognize those Americans.

Currently 56 Americans are held hostage or wrongfully detained, according to the Foley Foundation. The nonprofit was set up in memory of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped and later killed by extremists in Syria.

The Bring Our Families Home campaign, James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, Richardson Center for Global Engagement and members of the Levinson family advocated for Congress to pass the legislation to broaden attention toward the issue.

“The establishment of this annual day of observance is an important symbolic milestone that not only recognizes the importance of the issue but will also encourage greater public awareness and understanding of this enduring national crisis,” Benjamin Gray of the Foley Foundation told VOA.

Senator Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat, and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, introduced the legislation days after the release of American basketball player Britany Griner from Russian custody in March 2023.

Among the Americans held overseas are two American journalists.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly a year. Moscow accuses him of espionage, which the reporter and his newspaper deny.

The American-Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva has been in custody since October. Kurmasheva, an editor for VOA’s sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, denies the charges against her, including failing to register as a foreign agent.

The Foley Foundation said in a statement to VOA: “We continue to advocate for the release of both journalists from captivity in Russia. We believe that both have been unjustly targeted by the Russian government for leverage against the United States. In the case of Alsu, we urge the U.S. government to declare her as wrongfully detained.”

President Joe Biden mentioned Gershkovich’s case during his State of the Union speech Thursday, saying that the U.S. “will work around the clock” to bring him home.

The reporter’s parents attended the annual address as guests of House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson.

The Bring Our Families Home campaign has expressed frustration with the administration and organized a sit-in Friday at the White House aiming to highlight what they called a “lack of substantive support and action” from Biden.

In a statement Friday, campaign spokesperson Jonathan Franks said: “While the hostage and wrongful detainee flag championed by the campaign is flown over the White House on a day that is supposed to spur action on their loved ones’ plights, families express their frustration and exhaustion in front of the closed doors of the White House.”

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