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‘Hostage diplomacy’: a growing headache for the West

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'Hostage diplomacy': a growing headache for the West

 

Sylvie Arnaud’s first feeling when she learnt her son Louis had been detained in Iran in September last year was sheer incredulity, followed by a raging sense of injustice and impotence.

“We don’t know how long this will last, we don’t know what the Iranians are waiting for and we will probably never know,” she told AFP.

Louis Arnaud, described by his family as a passionate traveller who simply wanted to see the world, is one of four French nationals held in prison in Iran.

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He is also among at least a dozen Western nationals jailed in what campaigners and some governments describe as a deliberate strategy of hostage-taking by the Islamic republic to extract concessions.

But Iran is far from the only country accused of pursuing such a strategy, with the likes of China, Russia and Venezuela seen as holding innocent foreigners on trumped-up charges of espionage or other security-related allegations — people who simply had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Precedents have shown the prisoners are generally only released in exchange for something — either for other detainees or assets — forcing Western governments into the uncomfortable position of knowingly negotiating over hostage-takings.

Such negotiations are hugely time-consuming, painstaking, often conducted through intermediaries and, even if a deal is reached, can collapse at the last minute.

“At the beginning, I didn’t want to think that it was political. And time has now passed… without anything happening,” said Sylvie Arnaud.

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Western governments have often made major concessions to secure the release of their nationals held abroad.

The United States authorised the transfer of six billion dollars in Iranian funds frozen in South Korea and the release of five Iranians to facilitate the release of five Americans jailed by Iran. After being released from prison, the Americans are now held under house arrest and should go home when the transaction is completed.

This exchange has already been criticised for not including two US residents: German national Jamshid Sharmahd who is facing the death penalty and Virginia-based Iranian Shahab Dalili who was arrested in 2016 while visiting Tehran.

At the end of May, Belgian humanitarian Olivier Vandecasteele was released after 15 months of detention in Iran, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, who had been sentenced in Belgium in 2021 to 20 years in prison on terror charges for seeking to bomb an opposition rally outside Paris.

In October 2022, seven American prisoners held in Venezuela were released in exchange for two individuals close to President Nicolas Maduro.

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Russia in December released basketball superstar Brittney Griner, who had been held since February 2022 on charges of possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil. But only in exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — known as the “Merchant of Death” –- who had been jailed in the United States.

Former US marine Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia for over four years, remains in a penal colony while Russia in March arrested another US citizen, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

Etienne Dignat, professor at Sciences Po university in Paris, said governments faced a “dilemma”.

“By unfreezing assets and exchanging prisoners, they are in a certain way rewarding a crime and encouraging states to continue their hostage diplomacy,” Dignat, author of a book on hostage-taking, told AFP.

Daren Nair, a security consultant and campaigner who runs a podcast on hostage diplomacy, said the number of victims had risen in recent years.

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“The majority of Americans held captive abroad 10 years ago were held by non-state actors in countries like Syria, Yemen and Somalia… Today, the majority of Americans held captive abroad are being held by state actors like Iran, Venezuela, Russia and China,” he told AFP.

He said that once nationals were taken, governments had no alternative except to negotiate with their captors — but said more should be done to thwart the strategy in the first place.

He argued the two ways to stop hostage diplomacy were to “punish the individuals responsible within these hostage-taking states and continuously raise awareness so your citizens stop travelling to these countries.”

“In general the only way to get a hostage home is to negotiate,” added Joel Simon, founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative. “Other strategies –- such as rescues –- are rarely successful.”

“Unless we engage with hostage takers — whether they be states or non-state actors -– the hostage will probably be killed or will languish in detention or prison for an extended period.”

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Blandine Briere never doubted the innocence of her brother Benjamin who was finally freed in May after being held for three years in Iran on charges of espionage. She recalled how the family felt plunged into an “impasse”.

“We discovered a world that was unknown in normal life,” she said, recalling how the family offered support but was “constantly walking on eggshells because we did not know if it can have a positive or negative impact.”

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

 The African National Congress and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance, agreed on Friday to work together in South Africa’s new government of national unity, a step change after 30 years of ANC majority rule.

Once unthinkable, the deal between two sharply antagonistic parties is the most momentous political shift in South Africa since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid.

“Today, South Africa is a better country than it was yesterday. For the first time since 1994, we’ve embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a new government that will be different from the previous one,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in a televised address.

“From today, the DA will co-govern the Republic of South Africa in a spirit of unity and collaboration,” he said, adding that multi-party government was the “new normal”.

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The ANC lost its majority for the first time in an election on May 29 and has spent two weeks locked in intensive behind-the-scenes talks with other parties, which came down to the wire on Friday morning as the new parliament was convening.

The DA’s entry into national government is a big moment for a country still processing the legacy of the racist colonial and apartheid regimes. The party has struggled to shake off its image as a defender of rich white people and convince a broad spectrum of South Africans that it reflects their aspirations.

Two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance, will also take part in the unity government, they said. 

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Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

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Hamas' armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing al-Qassam Brigades said on Friday that two Israeli hostages held in Gaza were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Rafah a few days ago.

The group, in a video posted on its Telegram channel, did not release the names of those said to have been killed or provide any evidence.

The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins,” the al-Qassam Brigades statement said.

Israel rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a hostage-freeing operation in central Gaza’s al-Nuseirat on June 8. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 250 Palestinians were killed in the raid.

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The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. 

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

A Canadian navy patrol ship sailed into Havana early on Friday, just hours after the United States announced a fast-attack submarine had docked at its Guantanamo naval base on Cuba, both vessels on the heels of Russian warships that arrived on the island earlier this week.

The confluence of Russian, Canadian and U.S. vessels in Cuba – a Communist-ruled island nation just 160 km (100 miles) from Florida – served up a reminder of old Cold War tensions and of current fraught ties between Russia and Western nations over the Ukraine war.

However, both the U.S. and Cuba have said the Russian warships pose no threat to the region. Russia has also characterized the arrival of its warships in allied Cuba as routine.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, half submerged with its crew on deck, sailed into Havana harbor on Wednesday after conducting “high-precision missile weapons” training in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Canada`s Margaret Brooke patrol vessel began maneuvers early on Friday to enter Havana harbor, part of what the Canadian Joint Operations Command called “a port visit…in recognition of the long-standing bilateral relationship between Canada and Cuba.”

A Canadian diplomat characterized the Margaret Brooke`s arrival as “routine and part of long-standing cooperation between our two countries”, adding it was “unrelated to the presence of the Russian ships.”

Russia and Cuba were close allies under the former Soviet Union and tensions with Washington over Communism in its “backyard” peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moscow, which has maintained ties with Havana, has questioned the apparent nervousness of the West over the warships this week. 

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