Obama says U.S. will not prosecute families for paying hostage ransom

U.S. President Barack Obama says the U.S. government will no longer threaten to prosecute families who try to pay ransom to win the release of American hostages held overseas.

WASHINGTON D.C., UNITED STATES (JUNE 24, 2015) (RESTRICTED POOL) – U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday (June 24) that U.S. government will no longer threaten to prosecute families who try to pay ransom to win the release of American hostages held overseas, and the United States will directly negotiate with militants holding them but will not pay ransom.

The policy changes the way the government handles cases in which Americans are taken hostage by groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

The announcement follows a six-month review prompted by sharp criticism of the Obama administration by some victims’ relatives, who said they had been threatened with prosecution if they tried to raise money to pay a ransom.

“It has been my solemn commitment to make sure that they (the familes of hostages) feel fully supported in their efforts to get their families home and that there is a syncing up of what I know to be sincere, relentless efforts within government and the families, who obviously have one priority and one priority only, and that’s getting their loved ones back. These families have already suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government,” Obama said.

While the president unveiled the changes to the nation’s hostage policy he said that while the U.S. government should do everything in its power to rescue Americans held abroad, it will not pay ransoms.

“I firmly believe that the United States government paying ransom to terrorists risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we’re trying to stop, and so I firmly believe that our policy ultimately puts fewer Americans at risk,” Obama said.

The administration is creating an interagency “fusion cell” with personnel from the FBI, Pentagon and State Department to address hostage situations in a more comprehensive way, Obama said.

Several U.S. hostages have been killed in the past year in the Middle East, including some beheaded in videos released by Islamic State militants.

Unlike some European allies, the United States insists it will not make concessions to hostage-takers and has a strict no-payments strategy, saying ransoms only encourage further kidnappings and put funds in the hands of the militants.

But last year it exchanged five Taliban detainees held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to secure the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held five years by Taliban forces.

Also last year, two senior administration officials, one from the National Security Council and one in the State Department, repeatedly warned families of captives held in Syria that they could face prosecution if they paid a ransom to Islamic State. At the same time, FBI officials were telling the families they would not be prosecuted if they paid a ransom.

Even with a green light from the government to try to pay private ransoms, families face huge challenges in freeing captives. Over the past decade, European governments are believed to have paid militant groups more than $100 million in ransoms, according to U.S. and British officials.

As a result, the size of a ransom for an individual Western hostage has risen to an estimated $1 to $2 million in parts of the Middle East, they said.