The families of two Americans detained in Afghanistan hope to ratchet up pressure on the Biden administration to do more to get their loved ones home after more than a year.
Ryan Corbett and Mahmood Shah Habibi were both detained in Afghanistan in August 2022, a year after the country fell back under Taliban control following the US withdrawal from the country after nearly two decades of war.
Now, their families are becoming increasingly concerned about their well-being, and about how much they have missed in the past 15 months. They hope public attention will lead to progress from the Biden administration.
The Taliban has only acknowledged holding Ryan Corbett, and he has been designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department. The Taliban has not acknowledged holding Mahmood Habibi, his family said.
“I want them to do more,” Anna Corbett, Ryan Corbett’s wife, told CNN. “I think there has been progress. It’s just been very slow.”
“I’m worried for his health, and I’m worried about his life,” she said. “I don’t want this to keep getting delayed and Ryan not come home the same person that he left. I want him to be home, mentally and physically, and to be alive.”
No indication they were in danger
Ryan and Anna Corbett and their three children had lived in Afghanistan for more than a decade prior to the collapse of the Afghan government, doing non-governmental organization work. However, amid the Taliban takeover, the family was evacuated in August 2021.
Ryan Corbett returned in January 2022 to see if he could renew his business visa and to check on his business, Anna Corbett told CNN.
“I was really scared,” she recalled. When her husband went to the Ministry of Commerce to renew his visa, however, they offered effusive praise for his business – “they were over-the-top encouraging,” Anna Corbett said.
So Ryan Corbett returned in August 2022 for what was supposed to be a 10 day trip, with no indication that he was in any danger.
Roughly one week into his visit, he was asked to come in for questioning by the local police.
“He just thought it was a misunderstanding and it would quickly get cleared up. He was texting me, sending voice messages, and things. He’s like, ‘It’s fine,’” Anna Corbett said, recalling that she was concerned when she heard he was detained.
“Once the copy of his passport went down to Kabul, that that’s where they saw that they had somebody with the blue passport that they might be able to use politically,” she told CNN.
Ryan Corbett, his German colleague, and two local staff members were all detained. All but Ryan Corbett have since been released.
Mahmood Habibi had split his time between the US and Afghanistan, his brother Ahmad Habibi told CNN. Mahmood Habibi had worked for the Afghan government as deputy director and then director of civil aviation, and with the US Federal Aviation Administration at the US Embassy, his brother said.
He had been working for a telecommunications company since 2019, and when the Taliban took over the government in 2021, Mahmood Habibi “didn’t see any problems and any issues, and he proceeded his work,” Ahmad Habibi said.
Ahmad Habibi said he had spoken with his younger brother the day that he was detained.
“After a couple of hours, I received a message from my brother who was then in Kabul that Mahmood was detained by the Taliban,” he recalled. The driver and 29 other employees from the company were also detained. Only his brother and one other local employee remain detained, Ahmad Habibi said.
“We think it’s that they kept him maybe because he was a citizen, and also, he has (done) some work for the US government in the past,” he said.
‘It’s very difficult for everyone’
To their knowledge, neither Ryan Corbett nor Mahmood Habibi have been charged with any crimes, their loved ones said.
The Taliban has not acknowledged that they have his brother, Ahmad Habibi said, adding he believes that he may be held by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network. The family has heard “from some sources” that Mahmood Habibi is “fine” and imprisoned somewhere in Kabul, “but we don’t have more information about him.”
“We really want to request the Taliban government to at least acknowledge him and at least let us talk to him or meet him,” Ahmad Habibi said. “We are sure that he’s innocent, but even if there’s any charges on him, he should be allowed to talk to his family and to meet his family.”
“It’s very difficult for everyone” in the family, Ahmad Habibi said. His parents are elderly and have medical conditions, and his “brother’s detention has made the situation worse.”
“He has a wife and a 2-year-old daughter now. When he was detained, she was nine months, and now she’s past two years. So, they are very depressed,” he said.
The US government has acknowledged his brother as a detainee, but he has not been designated as wrongfully detained, Ahmad Habibi said.
Anna Corbett told CNN that the Taliban have acknowledged her husband’s detention. He was declared as wrongfully detained by the US government earlier this year.
He is held by the General Directorate of Intelligence in small basement cell in Kabul, where he is deprived of sunlight, she said.
Other prisoners who have been released told her that Ryan Corbett has had blackouts and seizures, and “one mentioned him being suicidal.” He is prone to pneumonia, Anna Corbett said.
In January, officials from Qatar – which serves as the US’ protecting power in Afghanistan – were able to visit him. Anna Corbett got a six-minute call from her husband in May.
“His voice sounded flat,” and she could tell from the way he was speaking that he was not alone, she recalled. He told her that he had fainted twice since being hospitalized – a fact that was news to Anna Corbett – and that he had been given pills, which he was taking, though he had earlier indicated to consular staff that he did not want to take unknown medication.
On Monday, Ryan Corbett was able to call US consular officials in Doha for three minutes.
“He said his health is holding up and that he loves us,” Anna Corbett told CNN. “The person on the consular call was able to tell him that his case is being worked on, so that’s really good.”
“But once again, these calls are always under duress with armed guards around, so they’re told what to say, what not to say,” she added.
‘Every day for 15 months is a nightmare’
Both Anna Corbett and Ahmad Habibi have had meetings with Biden administration officials, including special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens and members of the National Security Council.
“The United State has continuously pressed, including in meetings with Taliban representatives, for the immediate and unconditional release of Americans detained in Afghanistan. For privacy, safety, and operational reasons, we won’t speak publicly about these efforts,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.
A senior administration official told CNN, “we are engaged in doing everything we can to try to make progress, and it’s obviously a huge priority.”
“We’re continuing to try to do what we can, which is to get all the wrongfully detained Americans out of Afghanistan,” they said.
“If the Taliban wants to be treated like a government, then it needs to act like one,” the official said. “Among other things that we’ve communicated to the Taliban, that includes providing welfare checks and consular visits, which are standard in the international community.”
“They’re all telling us that it’s their priority to bring my brother home, but unfortunately, there has been no progress so far,” Ahmad Habibi said.
Anna Corbett told CNN she expects to speak with Secretary of State Antony Blinken soon and would like to speak with President Joe Biden.
“I would tell him our family’s story, that we were trying to do a good thing in Afghanistan, that Ryan was trying to help. And I would ask him to do everything in his power to bring Ryan home as soon as possible, but my kids need him. I need him,” she said.
“I just want those who can resolve it, to focus on it,” Anna Corbett said. “For us, it’s like every day for 15 months is a nightmare.”
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