Siamak Namazi
FILE - Siamak Namazi, an American held in Iran since 2015, is shown in an image taken from video. His attorney has said a detainee held in the same prison ward with Namazi was diagnosed with the coronavirus and was removed.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world, U.S. officials are expressing concern about the safety of American citizens held abroad, especially in countries that are hostile to the U.S, such as Iran and Syria.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the welfare of U.S. citizens abroad is a high priority for the U.S. government, particularly during these challenging times.

“In light of threats posed by COVID-19, the United States calls for both Syria and Iran to take concrete steps to protect the civilians, including U.S. citizens, being held there,” the spokesperson told VOA, adding that “we are closely monitoring these cases and will continue to raise them at every opportunity.”

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Iran to immediately release on humanitarian grounds all Americans detained in Iran, saying that Iranian authorities would be directly responsible for any American deaths.

FILE - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news conference at the State Department on March 25, 2020, in Washington.

“Reports that COVID-19 has spread to Iranian prisons are deeply troubling and demand nothing less than the full and immediate release of all American citizens. Their detention amid increasingly deteriorating conditions defies basic human decency,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Rights groups say that Americans held in Iran and Syria, along with the tens of thousands of others in detention, have been facing the danger of lack of access to health care, the threat of torture and overall lack of due process that makes Middle Eastern prisons notorious for abuse.

Temporary release

Iran is considered the focus of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East. It has reported more than 85,000 confirmed cases and more than 5,000 deaths.

Iran says it has granted temporary release to 100,000 prisoners because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But U.N. experts charge Iran should expand its temporary release of detainees to include prisoners of conscience, dual and foreign nationals who are still behind bars despite serious risk of contracting the deadly virus.

Michael White, 47, a U.S. Navy veteran, was released from an Iranian prison last month after showing symptoms of coronavirus infection. He was hospitalized in a crowded ward for COVID-19 patients in Iran and has experienced fever, fatigue and shortness of breath since his furlough, according to local reports.

White was arrested in July 2018 in Iran. He reportedly has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges related to insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and posting a private photo of Khamenei on social media. He is currently in the custody of the Swiss Embassy where he continues to receive medical treatment, reports said.

Siamak Namazi, an American detained in Iran since 2015, is also at risk of being infected with the coronavirus. Namazi’s attorney, Jared Genser, said in a statement last month that a detainee held in the same prison ward with his client had been diagnosed with the coronavirus and had been removed.

U.S. officials have called on Iran to release White, Namazi and other U.S. citizens, such as Morad Tahbaz, Baquer Namazi and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in 2007.

FILE - Lebanese internet freedom activist and U.S. permanent resident Nizar Zakka speaks to VOA Persian at his home in Washington, June 24, 2019.

Hostages as bargaining chips

Nizar Zakka is a U.S. citizen who was released last year after 1,395 days in Iranian detention since 2015. He believes Iran won’t free American prisoners without getting something in return.

“There should be a lucrative deal before Tehran releases its American hostages,” he told VOA. “Iranian authorities use these hostages as a leverage to get something in return.

“Tehran is probably anticipating a move from Washington in terms of its opposition with Iran’s loan request" to the International Monetary Fund, added Zakka, who was a U.S. permanent resident at the time of his arrest.

The White House has reportedly blocked an Iranian request for $5 billion from the IMF to fight the coronavirus.

Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini, a human rights activist and former member of Iran’s parliament, echoed Zakka’s views.

“Iranian authorities, like their international counterparts, are willing to get as much as possible from any circumstances, and it is not limited to financial benefits or profits,” he told VOA.

Khoeini, who during his tenure at the Iranian parliament was involved in releasing foreign political prisoners, said holding foreigners in Iran could also be exploited for “saving face, getting a status or gaining a prestige … as well as winning a fight or an argument against an archenemy as in the ongoing IMF conflict.”

Held in Syria

U.S. officials have also urged the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to release Syrians and U.S. citizens as fears mount that the coronavirus could spread quickly in overcrowded prisons in the war-torn country.

“In light of threats posed by COVID-19, the United States reiterates its calls for the Assad regime to take concrete steps to protect the fate of thousands of civilians, including U.S. citizens, being held arbitrarily in overcrowded and inhumane conditions in regime detention centers,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a recent statement.

At least two American citizens are believed to be held by the Syrian government: freelance journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a psychotherapist who has been detained since 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called on Syria to release Tice.

"We hope the Syrian government will do that. We are counting on them to do that. We’ve written a letter just recently,” Trump said at a press briefing last month.

Trump said his administration has been “working very hard with Syria to get him out.”

Tice’s mother, Debra Tice, believes that her son is still alive.

FILE - Debra Tice, mother of U.S. journalist Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in Syria five years prior, holds a dated portrait of him during a press conference in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on July 20, 2017.

“He is somewhere in Syria, most likely in Damascus or its whereabouts. He is staying alive because he wants to walk free,” she told VOA in a previous interview.

Challenges and options

Given the authoritarian nature of governments holding these Americans, some experts maintain the U.S. is facing challenges to ensure the safety of American detainees amid the pandemic.

However, Randall Rogan, an expert on hostage negotiation who teaches communication at Wake Forest University, said there are “two-pronged” options to address this issue.

“First, the U.S. State Department on behalf of the government can make some positive gestures of goodwill, such as releasing frozen funds or other economic conditions, as well as possibly offering assistance to deal with COVID-19, in exchange for the health and well-being, or even the release of detainees,” he told VOA.

He said that U.S. and international nongovernmental organizations could play a role to ascertain the detainees’ health and chances for release.

“The second prong would be the punitive approach, by which actions might be taken to put more negative pressure, such as sanctions, on the governments or various leaders directly,” Rogan said.

Philippe Nassif, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International, said pressure on Iran and Syria must continue to usher in prison reforms in those countries.

“The U.S. government must engage with the international community to ensure the release of prisoners who should not be in detention in the first place, given the growing pandemic,” he told VOA.

VOA’s State Department correspondent Nike Ching and VOA’s Nisan Ahmado contributed to this report from Washington.