Hostage & Wrongful Detainee Criteria

Hostage hands

The Foley Foundation considers the detention of an American to be unlawful or wrongful** based on criteria found in the Robert Levinson Hostage-Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act adopted into law in December 2020.

Cases in which a foreign government acknowledges that it has detained an American may be considered unlawful or wrongful if:

  1. U.S. officials receive or possess credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual;
  2. The individual is being detained solely or substantially because he or she is a U.S. national;
  3. The individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence U.S. Government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the U.S. Government;
  4. The detention appears to be because the individual sought to obtain, exercise, defend or promote freedom of the press, freedom of religion, or the right to peacefully assemble;
  5. The individual is being detained in violation of the laws of the detaining country;
  6. Independent nongovernmental organizations or journalists have raised legitimate questions about the innocence of the detained individual;
  7. The U.S. mission in the country where the individual is being detained has received credible reports that the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose;
  8. The individual is detained in a country where the Department of State has determined in its annual human rights reports that the judicial system is not independent or impartial, is susceptible to corruption, or is incapable of rendering just verdicts;
  9. The individual is being detained in inhumane conditions;
  10. Due process of law has been sufficiently impaired so as to render the detention arbitrary; or
  11. U.S. diplomatic engagement is likely necessary to secure the release of the detained individual.

The Foley Foundation uses the conventional definition of a hostage as a person detained and under the threat of death, injury, or continued detention by an individual or group in order to compel a third party to do (or abstain from doing) any act as an explicit or implicit condition of the person’s release. 

A hostage-taking event includes Americans held by non-state actors, specifically by terrorist organizations, militants, criminal groups, pirates, or unknown captors, as hostage-takers.

The Foley Foundation does not include individuals who were involved in (1) kidnapping attempts resulting in the immediate death of the victim, or the victim was killed before being taken to a secondary location, or (2) if a person has been reported missing and there is no evidence, open-source reporting, or indication from family members that the individual was taken hostage by a terrorist organization, militants, criminal groups, pirates, or unknown captors.  


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We share research on U.S. hostage and family experiences, helping families advocate for their loved ones’ safe return, and promoting deterrence, including core safety education for journalists and other international travelers.