The Problem with "Wrongfully Detained"
NJ Senator Bob Menendez and Former Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador of the US to the Russian Federation (2020-2022)
May 18, 2023
The process to name an American prisoner “wrongfully detained” is codified in the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage–Taking Accountability Act. The U.S. government will not advocate for the release of an American prisoner without the designation. The decision to name someone wrongfully detained rests with the U.S. secretary of state who has latitude to interpret the criteria set forth by law. It’s a subjective decision.
The U.S. State Department describes the process as follows:
“This discretionary determination is an assessment of the totality of the circumstances and is not a legal determination. Though every assessment will be different based on specific factors, the Department will consider the criteria outlined in the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage–Taking Accountability Act when making an assessment.” [Source: U.S Department of State]
The criteria in the law include entries, such as: the prisoner is held in inhumane conditions; independent nongovernmental organizations or journalists have raised legitimate questions about the innocence of the detained individual; due process of law has been sufficiently impaired so as to render the detention arbitrary; and others. Jimmy Wilgus should qualify for the three listed, if not more. Yet nothing has been done to designate him wrongfully detained.
Consider the criteria “due process of law has been sufficiently impaired so as to render the detention arbitrary.” Americans sentenced in Russia have been subject to a justice system that boasts a 99 percent conviction rate. Once arrested, a trial in Russia is a pro forma process that practically guarantees a guilty verdict. Impaired due process of law, indeed.
Moreover, independent nongovernmental organizations and journalists have raised questions about Jimmy’s innocence. So what does it take? Why won’t the secretary of state act?
Without wrongfully detained status, there is little the U.S. government will do for Jimmy Wilgus. He needs this designation and, according to the law, he meets the standard. We urge our fellow Americans to make the case for him and advocate on his behalf. Please write to Secretary Blinken to insist he classify Jimmy as wrongfully detained. It is time for Ambassador Carstens, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, to negotiate Jimmy's release in the next prisoner exchange.