Mystery shrouds process of designating US nationals as wrongfully detained abroad

washington — Supporters of two U.S. nationals seen as unjustly imprisoned overseas are raising concerns about what they see as a murky process by which the U.S. government decides whether to designate such individuals as wrongfully detained.

Granting a wrongful detention designation to a U.S. national means the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs is authorized to work with a coalition of government and private sector organizations to secure the detainee’s freedom.

Hostage rights advocates and relatives of the two U.S. nationals jailed in Iran and Russia tell VOA they want answers as to why the pair have been waiting months or years for a wrongful detention designation, while other Americans jailed in the same two countries have received the designation much more quickly.

Designations are granted if a review by the secretary of state concludes that the U.S. national’s case meets criteria  defined in the Levinson Act of 2020.

One U.S. national whose case has been under review for years is 62-year-old retired Iranian ship captain Shahab Dalili. After immigrating to the U.S. with his family in 2014 upon being granted permanent residency, he returned to Iran in 2016 to attend his father’s funeral and was arrested.

Iranian authorities sentenced Dalili to 10 years in prison for allegedly cooperating with a hostile government, a reference to the U.S. His family denies the charge.

While not a U.S. citizen, Dalili is considered a “U.S. national” under the Levinson Act, by virtue of his lawful permanent resident status.

The other U.S. national, whose case has been under review for months, is Alsu Kurmasheva, a 47-year-old U.S.-Russian dual citizen and Prague-based journalist with VOA sister network RFE/RL.

Kurmasheva had traveled to Russia last year to visit her elderly mother, but authorities blocked her from departing in June and confiscated her U.S. and Russian passports. They jailed her in October and charged her with failing to register as a foreign agent and with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military, offenses punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

RFE/RL and the U.S. Agency for Global Media say the charges were filed in reprisal for Kurmasheva’s work as a journalist.

Asked about Kurmasheva at a Tuesday news briefing, U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said the Biden administration remains “deeply concerned” about her detention and believes she should be released.

He said a “deliberative and fact-driven process” is underway regarding a wrongful detention designation in her case, but he declined to elaborate.

Speaking with reporters last August, Patel said Dalili’s case “has not yet been determined wrongfully detained” and declined to say more. There has been no update since then, Dalili’s son Darian told VOA.

In contrast to the unresolved status of Dalili’s eight-year detention, two Iranian Americans whom Iran freed from detention last September in a prisoner exchange with the U.S., and whom U.S. officials declined to name, received wrongful detention designations in what appears to be a relatively quick time.

The two individuals, whose backgrounds are revealed for the first time in this report as a result of a VOA open-source investigation, are San Diego-based international aid worker Fary Moini and Boston-based biologist Reza Behrouzi of Generate:Biomedicines.

Moini and Behrouzi were among five Americans released by Iran in the September exchange. The first indications that the two had been detained in Iran came from images of them published by news outlets and by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan as the group traveled to the U.S. via Qatar.

A day later, Iran’s NourNews site named the two previously unidentified Americans as “Reza Behrouzi” and “Fakhr al-Sadat Moini,” but gave no detail of their backgrounds. NourNews spelled Moini’s first name differently than “Fary,” the name she uses publicly in the U.S.

U.S. officials said all five of the Americans had been designated as wrongfully detained, including three previously known detainees who had been jailed for years: Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Sharghi.

VOA contacted the State Department to ask when, where and why Moini and Behrouzi were detained in Iran, but it declined to provide an on-the-record response. Neither of the two responded to VOA requests for comment sent by email and through their social media profiles.

But Behrouzi and Moini were active on their Facebook and X accounts until three months and 11 months respectively before their release, indicating both were detained for less than a year.

Upon hearing from VOA about the State Department’s silence on Moini’s and Behrouzi’s detentions in Iran, Darian Dalili said he believes “something is not right” about how they got their designations.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the prominent status of these two people, whereas my father [Shahab Dalili] is a regular father of two,” the younger Dalili said.

Nizar Zakka — a Lebanese American who spent almost four years in what the U.S. said was unjust detention in Iran until being freed in 2019 — has urged the Biden administration to seek Shahab Dalili’s release as a wrongfully detained U.S. national.

Zakka told VOA he was happy that Moini and Behrouzi were released. But he said their attainment of wrongful detention designations in what appears to be a matter of months, while Dalili has waited years without securing that status, shows the designation process is not transparent.

“The public has a right to know how two people freed by Iran in return for the U.S. unfreezing a huge sum of Iranian funds got their designations, whereas Dalili has not,” Zakka said. “U.S. nationals like Dalili also should not be left behind,” he added.


Russian American journalist Kurmasheva’s wait for a U.S. decision on whether she is wrongfully detained after more than six months of Russian imprisonment also contrasts with the case of American reporter Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal.

Gershkovich was arrested in Russia on March 29, 2023, on spying charges while working in the country as an accredited journalist. Twelve days later, Secretary of State Blinken announced his determination that Gershkovich was wrongfully detained.

Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, told VOA he does not know why Gershkovich got his designation so quickly while his wife continues to wait.

“The designation of Evan’s detention as wrongful was the right thing to do,” Butorin said. “But the designation process is opaque, and I don’t know where we are in it. I do know the State Department will prioritize those individuals formally designated as wrongfully detained in a prisoner exchange, so the designation is important for Alsu.”

Hostage rights advocate Diane Foley, president of U.S. nonprofit group Foley Foundation, told VOA she believes a big factor in Kurmasheva’s wait for a designation is her dual citizenship.

Foley said Gershkovich’s case for a designation was clearer because he is solely a U.S. citizen. She said Kurmasheva’s Russian citizenship means she is subject to Russian media regulations that the U.S. must examine to determine if she is jailed in violation of the detaining country’s own law, one of the criteria of the Levinson Act.

“That is what slows everything down,” Foley said. “But we are pushing for Alsu to get the designation because she is a press freedom advocate and there is no excuse for Russia to retaliate by detaining her on a technicality.”

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