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Medieval hostage-taking and prisoner swaps are back in vogue

People protest outside the White House in Washington on 19 November 2018 [Win McNamee/Getty Images]
People protest outside the White House over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Washington on 19 November 2018 [Win McNamee/Getty Images]

Do its member states take the UN Charter seriously any more? The United Nations was originally set up “to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained”. However, since those heady days when international law commanded respect and due reverence from East to West, it now seems that the Charter is no longer worth the paper it’s written on.

An alarming demonstration of this is provided by the number of innocent citizens, many with dual nationality, who are being held hostage by various countries around the world. Indeed, there appears to be an outbreak of hostage-taking by states who are using people as bargaining chips or, in the case of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, something much, much worse.

This was exactly how business used to be conducted in Europe during the Middle Ages when hostage-taking was the norm in society. The recent proliferation of this odious phenomenon, though, should be viewed with alarm as it is becoming a political as well as a legal issue today, in the 21st century.

The latest victim is an old friend of mine, American-born journalist Marzieh Hashemi, 59, who has been detained in the US for reasons as yet unknown. The popular anchor for Press TV, the Iranian state-funded broadcaster, was seized by the FBI as she checked in at St Louis Lambert International Airport on Sunday. From there she was transferred by the Bureau to a cell in Washington, DC; as of Wednesday, her son Hossein said that the family had “no idea” what led to her arrest. “Everyone we ask is very vague and the information is still limited,” he told Associated Press.

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At the time of writing, no charges have been filed against Marzieh Hashemi. She was filming a documentary, Black Lives Matter, in St Louis, Missouri, and was about to board a flight to Denver when she was arrested. The FBI has so far refused to comment about her arrest.

I have worked with Hashemi, and always found her to be witty, acerbic and professional, as well as driven in her career. We met while she was living in Tehran where she sometimes works; she has dual US-Iranian citizenship. Her documentaries are hard-hitting and, no doubt, embarrassing for Western powers as she reveals the hypocrisy of their foreign policies.

US law allows judges to order witnesses to be arrested and detained if the government can prove that their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case; that they would be a flight risk if not detained; and that they would be unlikely to respond to a subpoena. Press TV is standing by its employee and has held a news conference and launched a hashtag campaign on social media.

“We will not spare any legal action [to help Hashemi],” insisted Paiman Jebeli, deputy chief of Iran’s state IRIB broadcaster. According to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi, Hashemi’s arrest indicates the “apartheid and racist policy” of US President Donald Trump’s administration.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi in Tehran, Iran on 24 July 2017 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi in Tehran, Iran on 24 July 2017 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

Of course, Iran itself is already in the spotlight for arresting people with dual citizenship and others with Western links. It is currently holding US Navy veteran Michael R White and at least four other US citizens, including Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his 82-year-old father, Baquer, both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges. Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, have been sent to prison for 27 and 16 years respectively, while Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 years.

Meanwhile, British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, was sentenced to five years in jail more than two years ago for “spying”. The Free Nazanin Campaign has denied the allegations vigorously and has accused the state of using her as a political bargaining chip. Hashemi’s arrest is thus the latest of the tit-for-tat kidnaps — what else can such “lawful detentions” be called? — of people with dual nationality.

Earlier this month, the US State Department urged American citizens to “exercise increased caution” when travelling to China after a spate of high-profile detentions. US-Chinese dual nationals are at particular risk from so-called exit bans that prevent them from leaving China, said American officials.

Canada has also revealed that 13 of its citizens have been detained since last month, around the time that a top Chinese executive was arrested in Canada at the request of US prosecutors. Huawei company executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver to face a US extradition order over fraud charges — which she denies — that are linked to allegations of avoiding US sanctions on Iran.

Just two weeks ago, Russia charged Paul Whelan with espionage. The dual US-British citizen denies the charge, prompting questions over whether this is a genuine case or just another move in a decades-old Cold War. The former Marine, 48, who his family says was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding, was arrested on 28 December. Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, reckons that his client may just be a pawn in Moscow’s moves to force a classic spy swap, given that his arrest came weeks after Russian Maria Butina pleaded guilty in the United States to acting as a Kremlin agent.

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Russia has a history of arresting foreigners with the objective of trading prisoners with other countries. Sergei Skripal was involved in one such prisoner swap; the Kremlin released the Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted in 2006 of spying for Britain. Skripal moved to Salisbury in southern England, where he was subsequently poisoned and almost died in the novichok chemical attack almost a year ago.

One regime which probably warrants its own special category because of the huge number of people it has arrested and detained without trial ever since its foundation is the Zionist State of Israel, where almost 500 Palestinians are currently being held with neither charge nor trial under so-called “administrative detention”. The Jerusalem-based Palestinian prisoners’ rights group, Addameer, understands that Israel currently has 5,500 political prisoners behind bars. Holding people in detention without trial or, as in Israel’s case, without even charging them of an offence, is against international law. It is easier to understand why Israel can act with impunity in this and many other, even more deadly, matters when we see the major superpowers taking hostages for political reasons. We should not be surprised, therefore, that international — and the aforementioned UN Charter — all too often goes by the board.

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The practice of holding innocent citizens as hostages was common across the Roman and Persian Empires, and even pre-Islamic Arabia. The fact that hostage-taking is essentially a medieval way of negotiating between competing powers suggests that no matter how much we might pride ourselves on our civilisation, the reality is that we have made little real progress in the skills of dialogue and negotiation. The much-vaunted (and oft-abused) mantra of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is meaningless when even the heads of leading democracies resort to using innocent people in the Game of Nations. When medieval hostage-taking is back in vogue, we can be sure that even more barbarism is not far behind.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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