WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday announced the release of two Americans imprisoned overseas and said it had intensified demands for a third, amid global fears that the coronavirus could quickly spread among detainees and result in deaths.
Amer Fakhoury, a Lebanese-born naturalized American citizen, was headed to his home state, New Hampshire, from Beirut, where he had been detained for months on decades-old charges of torturing Lebanese prisoners.
“Any time a U.S. citizen is wrongfully detained by a foreign government, we must use every tool at our disposal to free them,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, as Mr. Fakhoury flew back to the United States on a military aircraft. “No family should have to go through what the Fakhoury family has gone through.”
Separately, Michael R. White, a U.S. Navy veteran and cancer patient, was released from an Iranian prison, where he had been held since July 2018, the State Department announced. Mr. White, of Imperial Beach, Calif., was freed on a medical furlough.
For now, he must remain in Iran, undergoing medical testing and evaluation at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which has acted as a diplomatic intermediary between the United States and Iran.
“The United States will continue to work for Michael’s full release as well as the release of all wrongfully detained Americans in Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. He said Mr. White had been “wrongfully detained” and was serving a 13-year sentence on charges that included insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private photographs on social media.
Mr. White was arrested in the northeastern city of Mashhad while visiting an Iranian friend.
And at the White House, President Trump said he was working to free Austin Tice, a journalist and former Marine who was abducted in Syria in August 2012. The Trump administration has made repeated efforts to try and secure his release, with no success.
“We’re working very hard with Syria to get him out,” Mr. Trump said. “We hope the Syrian government will do that. We are counting on them to do that. We’ve written a letter just recently.” It was not immediately clear what letter the president was referring to.
“At this very disturbing time for our nation and the world, it is more important than ever to get Austin safely home,” Mr. Tice’s family said in a statement.
The coronavirus pandemic has given the Trump administration new leverage in a longtime goal of freeing hostages and political prisoners across the world. Given their proximity in confinement, prisoners face a heightened risk to the deadly virus, which can be easily and quickly spread.
Earlier this week, Mr. Pompeo said U.S. diplomats had intensified demands for the release of Americans who were being held in Iran, which has one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. Iran has furloughed about 85,000 prisoners to stem the spread of the virus. But until Mr. White’s release on Thursday, at least five Americans believed to be detained by Tehran were not among them.
“We’re aware of what Iran has been doing with some of the prisoners given the outbreak of the Wuhan virus there,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters on Tuesday at a State Department briefing, referring to the coronavirus. “We’re aware that they are thinking about whether to release them or not. Everyone should know that we’re working it.”
On Thursday, Mr. Pompeo again called for the freeing of the so-called Citgo 6 — five American citizens and one U.S. legal resident — from a prison in Venezuela. They have been detained since November 2017, when President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela moved to consolidate power in part by targeting a U.S. subsidiary of his country’s state-owned oil company.
Mr. Pompeo said the six men all have weakened immune systems and “face a grave health risk if they become infected.”
“With the Maduro regime now acknowledging that Covid-19 cases are appearing in Venezuela, we are extremely concerned about the risk,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement.
A day earlier, the State Department’s special envoy to Afghan reconciliation invoked the coronavirus to pressure the Kabul government to release Taliban prisoners whose continued detention has halted U.S.-brokered peace talks.
“Coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence,” the American envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
“The Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield. A violation will undermine the peace process,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “The time has come to move forward on prisoner releases.”
Freeing American hostages and prisoners abroad is a high priority for Mr. Trump and his national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, who had previously been the government’s designated hostage negotiator.
In Beirut, Mr. Fakhoury’s rescue was the finale to weeks of U.S. government efforts to win his freedom after his arrest on Sept. 12, a day after he returned to Lebanon for the first time in 20 years.
A widely reviled figure in Lebanon, Mr. Fakhoury, 56, is accused of collaborating with Israeli forces during their 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. As a member of a Christian-dominated militia, he was charged with having overseen the torture of fellow Lebanese at a prison that remains notorious for its brutality.
Mr. Fakhoury, who has Stage 4 lymphoma, was released from jail earlier this week after a judge ruled that the statute of limitations to prosecute him had expired. But after an outcry from some Lebanese, a military judge quickly intervened to appeal the decision, complicating his planned departure from the country.
Mr. Fakhoury’s case drew the attention of senior United States senators, as well as coverage by a Fox News program watched regularly by Mr. Trump. Senior Trump administration diplomats pressured the Lebanese government, warning that the case risked rupturing its relationship with Washington, which sent the country more than $2.29 billion in military assistance between 2005 and 2019.
Trump administration officials said they believed that Mr. Fakhoury’s arrest was directed by Hezbollah, which plays a major role in the country’s multisectarian government. The United States has recently applied intense pressure on Hezbollah as part of its campaign against Iran and its regional proxies; some Trump officials have proposed formally designating it a terrorist group.
“Since Day 1 of arresting the criminal agent and killer Amer Fakhoury, American pressures and threats were made, secretly and openly, to force Lebanon to release him,” Hezbollah officials said in a statement after Mr. Fakhoury’s release. The group condemned what it called his “bloody and black history.”
“It is a sad day for Lebanon and justice,” the statement added.
Hezbollah in Lebanon is also allied — and supported — by Iran. Mr. White was arrested two months after the Trump administration withdrew the United States from a deal brokered by world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program, escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Relatives said Mr. White had in recent days reported having a fever and a cough — two key symptoms of the coronavirus. His throat cancer appeared to have come out of remission in July.
“We are grateful that the Iranian government took this interim humanitarian step,” said Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for Mr. White’s family. “We continue to urge them to release Michael unconditionally so that he can return to the United States to receive the advanced medical care he needs.”
Michael Crowley and Lara Jakes reported from Washington, and Vivian Yee from Beirut, Lebanon. Adam Goldman contributed reporting from Washington, and Rick Gladstone and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.