In bringing up Tice during a briefing on coronavirus, Trump underscored how the administration is using the global health crisis to spur its efforts to free Americans imprisoned overseas.
They had two successes Thursday. A State Department medical plane flew an ailing U.S. citizen, Amer Fakhoury, out of Beirut where he had been in detention since September. He has been suffering from lymphoma. Another U.S. citizen, Michael White, received a medical furlough from a prison in Iran and is being treated by doctors who work with the Swiss Embassy, which handles U.S. interests in the country.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also appealed to Venezuela to release six oil executives, five of whom hold dual U.S. citizenship, as the coronavirus spreads in a country devastated by U.S. sanctions.
Tice’s case prompted an unusually direct appeal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Trump’s remarks suggested that the Syrian government at least holds sway with those who captured Tice when he was in northern Syria covering the beginnings of the civil war.
A former U.S. Marine, Tice had ventured into Syria in May 2012, before his last year at Georgetown Law School. His freelance photos and stories were published by McClatchy newspapers, The Washington Post and other news outlets.
He disappeared in August 2012, a few days before his 31st birthday, after being detained at a checkpoint as he was heading out of Syria to file his latest stories.
About five weeks later, a short video appeared on a pro-government Web page. It showed him bound, blindfolded and sounding terrified as he stumbled down a mountainside surrounded by what appeared to be a group of militants. They chanted “Allahu Akhbar,” and he recited part of a prayer in Arabic. He also interjected, in English, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.” But the pristine white robes of his captors raised suspicions that they were not really hard-bitten militants.
He has not been heard from publicly since then, but U.S. officials have long insisted that they believe he is alive, and that the Assad government could play a role in his release.
Trump said the United States recently sent the Syrian government a letter about Tice but did not elaborate.
When asked whether he was confirming Tice is alive, Trump replied, “No, I’m not. But we’re trying to find that out. This has been going on for years — many years, they’ve been trying to find Austin Tice. He was in Syria. As you know, his mother is an incredible woman. And I’m doing it for him, but I’m doing it for his mother.”
Debra Tice and her husband, Marc, have worked tirelessly to keep their son’s case before the public. She has visited Washington repeatedly to talk to U.S. officials. They have joined forces with the National Press Club to sponsor a Night Out for Austin Tice in which participating restaurants around the country raise funds and awareness of his plight. Their website, austinticefamily.com, records his time in captivity — 2,775 days as of Thursday. The FBI has offered a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to his return.
Debra Tice has praised the Trump administration for prioritizing the return of Americans detained overseas on unjust charges, saying she believes it has dedicated far more effort than the Obama administration did.
Pompeo, in his statements on the release of the two U.S. citizens, appealed to Iran to release Morad Tahbaz, a wildlife conservationist, and Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer, who are in their fifth year of captivity in Iran after being convicted on espionage-related charges that their relatives and the U.S. government say are false.
Pompeo also asked for information on Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
Iran, one of the countries hit hardest by the viral pandemic, has released 85,000 prisoners out of concerns that cramped conditions in jails will make more people sick.
Brian Hook, the special envoy for Iran, said the coronavirus has added an urgency to U.S. efforts to get the Americans released.
“We want these Americans to not be at risk from corona,” he told reporters Thursday. “The fact that the regime has released so many people from jail is an admission by the regime of their concern. So we hope that that gets applied to the Americans who are still in prison.”