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Lack of information haunts families of wrongfully detained Americans

FILE - US President Joe Biden speaks April 25, 2024, in Syracuse, NY.
FILE - US President Joe Biden speaks April 25, 2024, in Syracuse, NY.

Families of Americans wrongfully detained in foreign countries called Tuesday on the Biden administration to share more information about their loved ones and to step up efforts for their release.

"My father, Jamshid Sharmahd, is a German American national who has been held hostage in Iran for three years and he is on a death row now. Our government has unfortunately failed to bring him back, has failed to engage and talk to us," Gazelle Sharmahd told VOA on the sidelines of a Foreign Affairs Committee roundtable Tuesday.

Jamshid Sharmahd, a U.S. resident of Iranian origin, has been sentenced to death in Iran. According to an Amnesty International report, Iranian state media claim Jamshid Sharmahd confessed to having a role in an April 2008 explosion in Shiraz, Fars province, in which 14 people were killed.

He has repeatedly denied the charges, Amnesty reported.

He was convicted of the charge of "corruption on earth," which is not clearly defined in law, according to the report. His appeal in front of Iran’s Supreme Court is pending, it added.

Gazelle Sharmahd was among the nine relatives and representatives of Americans detained in Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Russia, China and Nigeria who testified at a U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee roundtable Tuesday.

"My concerns are whether my father is alive or not, and the U.S. government being able to provide proof about his whereabouts and his conditions," said Maryam Kamalmaz, daughter of Majd Kamalmaz, an American psychologist last seen in 2017 at a Syrian government checkpoint outside of Damascus.

"As of right now the Syrian government is holding him, however, we have not been able to hear his voice for the past seven years," she told VOA in an interview Tuesday on the sidelines of the roundtable.

Maryam Kamalmaz said that her father’s absence has had a profound impact on the family.

"It's been an absolute nightmare. You know, you do not realize how special a person is until they are gone. My father completed our family, he was the glue to our family. In my daily life, everything he taught me is echoing in my ears," she told VOA.

Debra Tice, mother of Austin Tice, an American journalist kidnapped in Syria in 2012, told VOA Tuesday her main concern at Tuesday’s meeting "was HR 3202, which prevents any engagements with Syria, any company doing business in the United States of America not being able to engage with Syria. It was very important to discuss, it has already been through the floor of the House and it's now at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee."

Anna Corbett, whose husband, Ryan Corbett, has been detained in Afghanistan, told the congressional hearing, "I literally have no idea what steps are being taken to rescue my husband."

US government response

In August 2022, the 10th anniversary of the captivity of Austin Tice, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement: "I am committed to bringing home all U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees held around the world.

"As the president said directly to the Tice family, we will continue to pursue all available avenues to bring Austin home and work tirelessly until we succeed in doing so," he said in the statement.

In a July 2022 executive order, President Joe Biden declared a national emergency to deal with the threat of wrongful detention.

"I therefore determine that hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of United States nationals abroad constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States," the order said. "I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with this threat."

This story originated in VOA’s Deewa service.