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Opinion: What President Biden can do to free Americans imprisoned overseas

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Brittney Griner is the most famous American imprisoned overseas. The WNBA star has been languishing in a Russian jail for over four months. She recently wrote a letter to President Biden pleading for his help in freeing her and other American detainees. "Please do all you can to bring us home," she asked.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price has said, “We are doing everything we can, almost all of it unseen, almost all of it unsaid in public, to do everything we can to advance the commitment that President Biden has to see these Americans who are wrongfully or unjustly detained around the world or in some cases held hostage around the world brought home.”

Brittney Griner, wearing handcuffs, at the bottom of a stairway.
WNBA player Brittney Griner arrives at a hearing outside Moscow on July 7. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Such reassurances ring hollow to those such as me, whose friends and relatives have been wrongfully detained by foreign powers with less-than-independent judiciaries and little to no accountability. I have received the same promises on multiple occasions from State Department officials when advocating on behalf of American citizens held in Saudi Arabia.

President Biden can demonstrate that his administration takes their cases seriously when he travels to Saudi Arabia on July 13. He should go beyond simply mouthing well-worn platitudes about human rights in his meetings with Saudi leaders and personally meet with American detainees in the kingdom.

Bader al-Ibrahim, Walid Fitaihi and Salah al-Haidar are being held in Saudi Arabia. Al-Haidar, the son of a women's rights activist, and al-Ibrahim, a writer and doctor, were detained in April 2019 and subsequently charged with terrorism-related crimes. Although they were "temporarily" released from prison in early 2021 after years in detention, they continue to face travel bans that prevent them from using their American passports to come home to the United States, and they are at risk of being rearrested anytime under a rough Saudi regime. In the case of Fitaihi, a Saudi American doctor, the Saudi government alleges that he obtained his U.S. citizenship without official permission from the kingdom.

Biden will meet Saudi King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often called MBS, in Jeddah, where, conveniently, Fitaihi currently resides. (Al-Ibrahim and al-Haidar are in Riyadh.) The leader of the free world and America's chief human rights officer could assuage doubts about his commitment to the welfare of his citizens by inviting Fitaihi and other Americans trapped inside the walled Saudi kingdom to meet with him. Such an encounter would also signal to the Saudis that despite his rehabilitating the murderer of Jamal Khashoggi by meeting with MBS, the U.S. president will not be returning to business as usual with Saudi Arabia.

President Biden, Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid walk together.
President Biden is welcomed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on Wednesday. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition to these publicized cases, Saudi Arabia's prisons hold numerous other American citizens whose names are not as well known. A retired Saudi American executive has been held without charge since November 2021. He was arrested shortly after putting out a tweet critical of MBS. I spoke to his family in the United States, but, fearing reprisal, they requested anonymity. The State Department knows who he is, however. In a recent message to his family, it said it is reviewing the case but “the Department has not made a wrongful detention determination at this point."

The bureaucratic lethargy of Washington is legendary, and unfortunately it sometimes takes high-profile interventions to shake things loose. Consider the example of Austin Tice, an American journalist who was captured in Syria in 2012 and has not been seen or heard from since. For months, Tice's parents had been meeting with National Security Council staff, but they could not meet with the president himself. It was only when Steven Portnoy, the CBS News reporter and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, publicly introduced the Tices at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner, which Biden was attending, that the president agreed to see them — two days later, no less.

The eyes of America and the world will be on President Biden when he travels to Saudi Arabia. They will be watching to see how he balances the demands of realpolitik with his high-minded campaign rhetoric on human rights. The president likes to think of himself as a fighter and a staunch defender of the common man. He can reinforce that image by setting aside the bureaucratic niceties and taking visible steps on behalf of the citizens he has been elected to serve.

Ali Al-Ahmed is the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C.

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