Mural spotlights Americans detained overseas as families say ‘It’s not going away’

The families of several Americans detained abroad arrived in Washington on Wednesday morning to unveil a mural depicting them in a bid, according to their relatives, to raise awareness and pressure the Biden administration to do more. to bring them home.

The mural depicts 18 Americans detained in other countries. According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, 64 known citizens are currently being held outside the United States.

The mural features WNBA superstar Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who have become faces of the issue due to their ongoing detentions in Russia. (Griner was arrested and later pleaded guilty to smuggling hash oil into the country, though she said it was “inadvertent” and part of her vaping cartridge. Whelan said been accused of espionage, which he and the US government deny.)

The 15-foot-tall installation aims to draw attention to Griner, Whelan, and a series of underrecognized Americans detained around the world, sometimes for political leverage.

Most of the images used for the mural are the last photos taken of the inmates.

While Matthew Heath’s portrait depicts him with a gentle smile in his crisp navy uniform from when he served, his mother, Connie Haynes, says he is currently being tortured in Venezuela after more than two years in detention .

She claims Heath was repeatedly beaten and left with both hands broken and his retina detached and fed carbon monoxide at random intervals while locked in a 2-square-foot box.

Heath attempted suicide this year but was still abused and chained to his bed in the medical facility where he was being monitored, according to his mother.

“My son will not survive unless our government brings him home,” she said Wednesday. “I don’t know how long he can endure.”

During the unveiling, Haynes was interrupted by a call and rushed to the end of the aisle next to the mural. Her son was trying to reach her.

“We were able to tell him what we are doing, for him, for the other families – how hard we are working to try to bring him home,” Heath’s uncle Everrett Rutherford said afterwards.

They were also able to put Heath in touch with the Biden administration’s presidential special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, who spoke on Wednesday.

During the rare opportunity to speak with Heath, Rutherford said he and Heath’s mother were able to “give [Heath] a little courage and hope.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday called the mural a “powerful symbol of those who have been deprived and taken away from their loved ones” and said Carstens’ presence at the unveiling was an important way” to continue to show our support for these families who are enduring an ordeal that, to anyone but them, is unimaginable.”

“These efforts are – by necessity – silent,” Price said when asked about the frustration of some inmate families about the future. “We’ve found that these cases are often best handled behind the scenes. Even if we don’t talk about it, that doesn’t mean we aren’t working around the clock to see the successful resolution and outcome.”

The mural’s artist says it was designed to be impermanent.

The faces of Americans, smeared with flour, water, sugar and paper, will “fade, tear and eventually disappear over time,” Isaac Campbell said in a press release. This fleeting quality is meant to add a sense of urgency for the government “to use the tools available to bring these Americans home – before their faces fade and disappear from this wall,” Campbell wrote.

“It’s not going away,” said Neda Sharghi, the only sister of Emad Shargi, a dual citizen detained in Iran since 2018 on the pretext that he is a spy.

The siblings’ father, who ‘felt there was hope of bringing his son home’ while watching the unveiling, passed out and was taken in an ambulance out of the event, said Neda Shargi. “It’s our world,” she added.

“Any second my father could walk by and not see his son anymore,” she said. “But I don’t want to cry,” she continued, calling on anyone struck by the new mural to call their reps to “let the president [Joe] Biden knows you’ll all be on his side if he can bring Americans home.”

Wednesday’s ceremony comes a day after Biden signed an executive order that declared the hostage-taking and wrongful detention of American citizens a national emergency.

The order aims to increase financial penalties against those who are directly or indirectly involved in such detentions. Additionally, the State Department has added new warnings to its travel advisories to help citizens avoid places abroad where they risk wrongful arrest.

The White House informed relatives of American detainees of the executive order ahead of its signing during a Monday call that was called a “one-sided conversation” by Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for a Family Network and the campaign. Bring Our Families Home. He claimed the White House’s latest actions were “an effort to pre-manage press attention” around relatives of detainees who arrived in Washington this week.

While some families welcomed the move to improve transparency and intelligence sharing between the federal government and relevant relatives of those detained overseas, others expressed dissatisfaction with their lack of communication with the president. .

“We’re really grateful,” Hannah Shargi, Emad Shargi’s daughter, told ABC News of Biden’s recent actions. But she says she wants to see, at a minimum, meetings between the families and Biden organized by the country where their loved one is being held.

“We know they’re hurting. We know they’re scared. And we know they’re anxious,” White House spokesman John Kirby said in a press briefing on Tuesday. “We know they want their loved ones home, and the president wants that too.”

Meanwhile, they work and they wait.

“I used to walk these streets with him,” Hannah Shargi said Wednesday next to the mural of her father. “It gives me some hope that he’s larger than life here. And he’s larger than life in real life – so I’m glad people see him the way I see him.”

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Robert M. Larson