Donald Trump has made it clear enough that he has no interest in pursuing the traditional U.S. human rights strategy of pressuring foreign regimes, including U.S. allies, to release political prisoners, stop torture or allow free elections. But what about an America First campaign to deter other governments from mistreating or unjustly imprisoning U.S. citizens — in some cases, simply because they are Americans?
A bit haphazardly, the Trump administration has already made a start at such a policy. If it wants to build on it, there is plenty of opportunity.
The start includes Aya Hijazi, a 30-year-old Egyptian American who was freed in late April after Trump raised her case with strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Hijazi and her husband had been imprisoned for nearly three years on bogus child abuse charges; they had established a nonprofit to help Cairo’s street children, thus drawing the attention of a security apparatus that targets all civil society groups with American connections.
Releasing Hijazi was an easy way for Sissi to pander to Trump without altering the most repressive regime in Egypt’s modern history. Trump, in turn, was foolish to embrace the dictator, who is slowly driving his country over a cliff.
Still, Hijazi was freed. So was the family of Xie Yang, a courageous Chinese lawyer who released a damning account of how he was tortured after his 2015 arrest. When his wife and children fled to Thailand, Chinese agents tracked them down and had them arrested. They were on the verge of being forcibly returned to Beijing when U.S. diplomats spirited them out the back door of a local jail, according to a report by the Associated Press. Xie’s wife, Chen Giuqiu, and her two daughters — one of whom is a U.S. citizen — arrived in Texas in March.
As The Post’s Simon Denyer reported, they are not the only prisoners the administration has sprung from China. In April, American business executive Phan Phan-Gillis was deported two years after being arrested on spying charges. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly raised her case during his first visit to Beijing.
If Trump chooses to make such cases a priority, there are plenty more out there. North Korea is now holding four Americans, including University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier. Iran has at least four, including businessman Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father, Baquer, who was jailed when he traveled to Tehran in an attempt to free his son. Venezuela keeps Joshua Holt, who was arrested on bogus weapons charges after he traveled to Caracas to marry a Venezuelan. And at least three more Americans are among the 40,000-plus political prisoners imprisoned by the Sissi regime.
The abuse of Americans abroad is in part the inevitable result of a nation of immigrants and the resulting ubiquity around the world of U.S. passport holders. But it’s probably been encouraged by the failure of the past several administrations to take it seriously enough.
President Barack Obama, like a couple of presidents before him, preferred to downplay cases where U.S. citizens were held. For more than a year the State Department would not say anything in public about the Hijazi case. When Post reporter Jason Rezaian was arrested in Iran, Obama declined to connect his jailing to the ongoing nuclear negotiations. Rezaian and several other Americans were finally released only after the administration agreed to a prisoner swap.
Obama did manage to free an Egyptian American, Mohamed Soltan. But that took a year, and the administration eschewed some of the tough measures recommended by State Department human rights staff, such as expelling Egyptian military attaches in Washington if a deadline for Soltan’s release was not met.
“I’ve always felt we should be more militant about getting unjustly detained Americans out of prison,” said Tom Malinowski, the former State Department assistant secretary in charge of human rights during the Obama years. Malinowski defends Obama’s record of advocating for imprisoned Americans, but said, “I think if we were willing to signal in several such cases that we are prepared to go to war for our people, fewer countries would mess with Americans in the future and quick, quiet diplomatic solutions would become easier when they do.”
Of course, Malinowski does not mean actual war, but tough steps such as expelling envoys and holding up aid payments. Neither he nor other human rights advocates see it as a substitute for a global policy. The Hijazi release is not going to change the disastrous situation in Egypt or the threat it poses to vital U.S. interests.
Still, Trump has an opportunity to carve out a role as a fierce defender of Americans abroad, distinguish himself from past presidents and score a few relatively easy wins. If he seizes it, even those of us who despise his values-free foreign policy will have to give him some credit.
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