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After hostage deal with Iran, U.S. looks to deter arbitrary arrests abroad

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he carries around a list of wrongfully detained Americans. That list got a bit shorter this week when five Americans were released from Iran. But Blinken says there is still work to do. And he's trying to come up with ways to deter countries from taking Americans to use as political pawns. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was freed in a prisoner swap with Iran in 2016. But he says even after he came home, he received death threats because of a propaganda television series about him in Iran. And the Iranian producer of that program is here in New York as part of Iran's delegation to the U.N. General Assembly.

JASON REZAIAN: Why is that person allowed to walk freely in New York City as a member of a diplomatic delegation? He's not a diplomat. He is an aider and abettor of a hostage-taking state.

KELEMEN: Rezaian says if the U.S. and other countries really want to deter this practice of arbitrary detentions, it should punish those involved.

REZAIAN: And there should be consequences for people like that.

KELEMEN: We're speaking at Canada's mission to the United Nations. Canada took a lead in this effort after two of its citizens were held by China to pressure Canada to drop a case against Huawei's chief financial officer. Michael Kovrig, who spent a thousand days in Chinese custody, says countries need to sharpen the tools of deterrence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL KOVRIG: Currently, the costs of arbitrary detention are asymmetric - low for perpetrators, high for targeted states and astronomical for victims. To invert that equation, we must deny opportunities and punish violations.

KELEMEN: Canada's foreign minister, Melanie Joly, says that's exactly what they're trying to do. More than 70 countries have signed on to a joint statement condemning arbitrary detentions. The next step is to show that they can work together, rather than one by one, to pressure and punish countries that take people as pawns. Secretary Blinken calls the practice callous and inhumane. The U.S. says it's working on 30 to 40 cases now, including two Americans currently held in Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: Sometimes I look across the table at a counterpart whose country is engaged in this and really ask myself how they sleep at night.

KELEMEN: Blinken has faced criticism for the deal with Iran. The U.S. gave clemency to five Iranians and helped Iran get access to $6 billion of its oil revenue that had been frozen in recent years. But Jason Rezaian says getting Americans home does require concessions and negotiations. He'd just like to see a more concerted effort to prevent these situations in the first place.

REZAIAN: We have a growing body of evidence of a serialized crime that's being perpetrated again and again by mafia states.

KELEMEN: He means Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela and North Korea. But Rezaian says some U.S. friends are involved in this, too, and he'd like to see them sign on to this statement reestablishing international norms. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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