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The Families of Hostages are Told to Keep quiet. They shouldn’t.


Naghmeh Abedini, Sarah Hekmati

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Nearly four years ago, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, flew to Iran to visit his grandmother. Days before he was scheduled to return home, he vanished. Frightened family members searched frantically for him. It took months before they found out that Iranian authorities had secretly detained him.

U.S. and Iranian officials urged his relatives to remain quiet, family members said recently, arguing that public attention would complicate his release. They complied. Nevertheless, in December 2011, Iran abruptly charged Hekmati with spying and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for cooperating with a hostile government.

The advice routinely given by American and European officials (as well as private outfits) involved in hostage and prisoner negotiations is this: If you want to help, keep the abduction a secret. In cases involving hostages taken by Islamist militiamen or by governments — from the dozens of kidnappings in Syria to the four Americans detained by Houthi fighters in Yemen last month — the prescription appears to be the same. And family members, terrified by uncertainty, defer to the experts.

But some families are beginning to question whether following this course is the right move when secrecy has failed them repeatedly. “Our family learned later that our silence allowed Amir to suffer the worst torture imaginable,” Hekmati’s sister told a congressional hearing this month. This advice can also put others unwittingly in harm’s way, by keeping the public in the dark about the risks. That’s what happened in Syria, where the Islamic State repeatedly targeted journalists and aid workers in the hopes of ransoming them, as still others trickled into the country. In the end, worldwide attention may be better than none at all.

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