Americans still captive in global power games

Updated 9:46 AM EDT, Fri May 31, 2013

Story highlights

Frida Ghitis: Dennis Rodman's plea on Kenneth Bae reminds us of Americans held abroad

She says a number of U.S. citizens are languishing in prisons as geopolitical pawns

She says they're held on trumped-up, dubious charges in Cuba, Iran and beyond

Ghitis: We must let families take lead on reaction but be ready to raise voice for captives' return

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of “The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.” Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

CNN —  

The drama of an American woman who unexpectedly found herself in a Mexican prison has just had a happy ending. But the plight of many other U.S. citizens kept against their will in foreign prisons continues, as anxious relatives desperately seek for a way to gain their release,

Yanira Maldonado’s sudden arrest on by Mexican authorities – who alleged she was transporting drugs, a charge she and her family vehemently denied – sparked a national outcry. It helped her case that Mexico has good relations with the U.S. Other captives, by contrast, have become the victims of complicated political and diplomatic battles between the U.S. and its foes.

Today, there are a number of American citizens languishing in prisons, some of them off the map, their survival at the mercy of powerful players with intricate agendas of geopolitical blackmail. For their families, the ordeal is emotionally devastating and becomes incalculably complicated as they try to figure out whose advice they can trust, how to avoid saying the wrong thing and how best to proceed to gain their loved ones’ freedom.

Kenneth Bae, the Korean-American owner of a tour company, was just sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, convicted for “hostile acts” against North Korea. His sister, Terri Chung, said he was in North Korea as part of his job. “We just pray” she said, asking “leaders of both nations to please, just see him as one man, caught in between.”

If Chung has reason for concern seeing her brother in the hands of a regime with little international accountability, the family of Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran six years ago, is not even sure who is holding him.

Levinson, a retired FBI agent, was working as a private investigator on a cigarette smuggling case when he traveled to the Iranian resort island Kish in March 2007. Almost immediately, he vanished.

With tensions running high between Washington and Tehran, the U.S. government believed Iranian intelligence took him as a potential bargaining chip. But Iran denies knowing his whereabouts. For years, there were no signs of life; many thought he’d died. Then more than three years after his kidnapping, the family received a wrenching video of the emaciated father of seven, his voice breaking, asking the U.S. government to acquiesce to his captors’ demands: “Please help me get home.”

His wife and son posted their own video, describing Levinson as a loving father and grandfather, begging his captors, “Please tell us what you want.”

Six years after the kidnapping, Secretary of State John Kerry