American hostages: A look at three US citizens being wrongfully detained overseas

There are approximately eight Americans still being held by Hamas since it started a war with Israel last October, but roughly 50 Americans are being wrongfully held by foreign governments worldwide.

One of the most famous cases of Americans being held overseas is Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained by Russia in 2023. He was accused of espionage while on a reporting assignment in Russia, despite having full press credentials in the former Soviet country.

Although Gershkovich’s story is not common, 48 other Americans are also still wrongly convicted and detained, and some have been imprisoned for more than a decade. At least one has been sentenced to death. 

Families and friends of current and former hostages and detainees gather outside of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 3, 2023, to ask the Biden administration for more help. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Here are the stories of three of those prisoners as told by their families.

Mark Swidan: Imprisoned by China since 2012

Texas native Mark Swidan was arrested by China in 2012, for allegedly trafficking illegal drugs. He was tried a year later and given the death penalty, which was upheld by an appeals court in 2023. His mother, Katherine Swidan, has been passionately pleading for his release since the arrest.

Katherine Swidan said the last time she spoke to her son was in March, when a phone call came in the middle of the night for Texas. She was told by her son that United States officials were underplaying his situation and that he was losing hope of ever being rescued by his home country.

“I feel like one woman against all of China,” Katherine Swidan told the Washington Examiner. “But I need the president to do his job, and make it clear to President Xi, that my boy has to come home. And nobody mentions my son’s name. They talk about the American hostages in Gaza. They talk about the Wall Street Journal guy. And they talk about Paul Whelan, who’s been there, I think five years. They never mentioned Mark’s name. I think it’s because China has a lot of stuff on President Biden and Hunter, so that makes Mark a political prisoner. He’s a pawn. Every time Biden opens his mouth, he makes it worse because he calls him a dictator and he puts all these sanctions, but he doesn’t get tough, saying ‘I want him released and I want him released now.’”

Katherine Swidan said her son has threatened suicide if he is not rescued soon, and that her son, who was in China to purchase flooring and furniture at the time of his arrest, is in bad condition with a swollen knee due to it being dislocated while in the prison, along with previously having both hands broken while being held by China.

“I am convinced the Biden administration is just letting him die,” Katherine Swidan said. “I pray for him, as do people all over the world. I continue to fight for him on social media, in letters and phone calls. Something has to happen to get the attention of America.”

Before the phone call, it had been six years since she had spoken to her son, who is now 49. 

Katherine Swidan also said she cannot travel to China to visit her son in person because she is 74 years old, and has health conditions that make it impossible to travel so far. 

Mark Swidan is just one of several Americans who are wrongfully detained in China. Kai Li from New York, and California Pastor David Lin are also wrongfully detained in China.

Kai Li: Detained in China since 2016

Kai Li’s son Harrison said his father has been wrongfully detained in China since 2016, after he was arrested in China on espionage charges, and for allegedly stealing state secrets. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but his family is hoping he will be released sooner.

[Courtesy of Harrison Li]

“It’s been challenging to be without my dad for so long,” Harrison Li said in an email to the Washington Examiner. “He missed my college graduation in 2018 — now six years later, I’m worried he won’t be able to see me graduate from my doctoral program next summer. We need President Biden to make the difficult but necessary decisions to bring home my dad and the other Americans home from China — it’s simply been far too long.”

Harrison Li also pleaded with the Biden administration to come speak with him and other families of Americans who are wrongfully detained. Harrison is part of the “Bring Our Families Home” campaign, which is made up of family members of the detained Americans, and other U.S. hostages.

“It’s been tough getting the attention of the officials at the very top of the White House. We’ve seen that the administration has definitely given certain hostage families more attention than ours,” Harrison Li said. “Those who are famous, well-connected or serve a political purpose, for example, have gotten meetings with President [Joe] Biden. Yet our family’s repeated requests have gotten ignored, along with those of many of the others in the campaign. That’s not to say that those families that have gotten the meetings don’t deserve them — they do, and then some — we just ask for the same treatment.”

Harrison Li said his father has experienced an irregular heartbeat, shingles, and other health conditions while being detained in China, and went three years without an in-person visit because of protocols put in place from the COVID-19 pandemic. Visits were resumed in 2023. 

Ryan Corbett: held by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2022

Ryan Corbett has been held by the Taliban since August of 2022, on no specific charge, according to his wife Anna Corbett, who has actively campaigned for his release. 

Ryan and his family had left Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in 2021, but he kept his business going from a distance. He returned to the country in January of 2022, to renew his visa, but when he returned for business that August, he was arrested. 

Ryan Corbett, center, has been held by the Taliban since August 2022. His wife, Anna, second from the right, recently traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers and administration officials regarding their efforts to secure the release of her husband. Their three children are Caleb (13), Miriam (16) and Ketsia (18). (Credit, Corbett family)

Anna Corbett claimed that her husband’s physical and mental health have been deteriorating since being held by the Taliban, and that her husband is losing hope that he will ever be back with his family.

“He’s been lied to since he’s been there since he’s been held, and told that his country doesn’t care. They’re not trying to release him,” Anna Corbett told the Washington Examiner. “They’re also telling him, you’ll be released soon, and then nothing happens. Obviously, he’s still being held. And sadly, it seems like he’s just starting to lose hope that his country truly is going to get him home. And he’s believing their lies. That’s really scary.”

Anna Corbett said the separation from her husband was also something their three teenage children felt. Ryan Corbett is expected to miss his daughter’s high school graduation in June. Anna Corbett also claimed the Taliban has not allowed any video calls with the family, only audio, but that they received a photograph of her husband in December in which it was clear he had lost a lot of weight.

Anna Corbett said she has seen widespread support from members of Congress, who have called for her husband’s release. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) released a joint resolution on Monday that called for Ryan Corbett’s release. 


House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) has also been supportive of the family and has repeatedly called on the Biden administration to help get Ryan Corbett, Mark Swidan, and other Americans back home safely.

“The Biden administration must stop ignoring requests to meet with Ryan Corbett’s family and take urgent action to secure his release from the Taliban,” McCaul said in a recent statement. “Ryan’s worsening condition is a tragic yet predictable consequence of the administration’s disastrous withdrawal – Americans becoming collateral damage and victims of the Taliban monsters. I want to assure Ryan’s friends and family that we will continue to fight every day until we bring him home. This will send a strong message to the Taliban that America, both Republicans and Democrats alike, will not tolerate [the] illegitimate detention of American citizens.”

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