Sister demands release of Israeli-Russian researcher kidnapped in Iraq

As U.S. President Joe Biden was hosting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani on Monday, a group of demonstrators held a protest outside the White House, demanding the release of a Princeton doctoral candidate kidnapped in Iraq a little over a year ago.

Elizabeth Tsurkov was abducted in Baghdad in March 2023 shortly after her arrival in the Iraqi capital. The dual Israeli-Russian citizen had traveled to Iraq to conduct fieldwork for her dissertation.

“We have tried every way to reach out to the Iraqi government, but to no avail,” said her sister, Emma Tsurkov.

Emma Tsurkov and two other siblings flew in from Israel to advocate for their sister’s release during the Iraqi prime minister’s weeklong visit in the U.S. They participated in the Monday protest as well.

“I’ve reached out to the Iraqi ambassador in the U.S. I have sent emails, and even letters with snail mail, to the Iraqi government, but I have heard nothing from them,” Emma Tsurkov told VOA in a phone interview on Wednesday.

The Israeli government said in July 2023 that Tsurkov was being held by Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Shia militia that has ties with the Iraqi government and Iran.

Israeli citizens are forbidden from traveling to Iraq, but Tsurkov used her Russian passport to enter the country, according to the Israeli government.

FILE - Palestinian Prisoners Committee members rally outside the International Committee of the Red Cross office in Gaza City on July 17, 2023, demanding the Iraqi government include Palestinian prisoners in the exchange for academic Elizabeth Tsurkov.

FILE – Palestinian Prisoners Committee members rally outside the International Committee of the Red Cross office in Gaza City on July 17, 2023, demanding the Iraqi government include Palestinian prisoners in the exchange for academic Elizabeth Tsurkov.

In November 2023, Kataib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, released a proof of life video of Tsurkov.

Emma Tsurkov said she met an adviser of the Iraqi prime minister who is accompanying him on his U.S. trip.

“He told me they had information about Elizabeth’s case since the day she was kidnapped and that their task force team assigned to this case was still looking for her whereabouts and those responsible for her abduction,” she said.

The State Department had confirmed that Biden would raise the case of Tsurkov with al-Sudani. Emma Tsurkov said that she had since learned the case was discussed during the meeting.

At a roundtable discussion with a group of journalists in Washington, the Iraqi leader said Tsurkov’s kidnapping was “unacceptable and against the law.”

“The Iraqi government has formed a special team to investigate the fate of this woman and arrest those responsible for her kidnapping,” al-Sudani said, noting that he had discussed Tsurkov’s case during many of his meetings in Washington.

But her sister said that al-Sudani’s “absurd” comments were not helpful in bringing Tsurkov home.

“With such comments, the Iraqi prime minister is admitting that he is incompetent to control his security forces,” she said. “It’s been 13 months since Elizabeth has been kidnapped, and they can’t find her. We all know who is holding her. Kataib Hezbollah is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is part of the Iraqi defense system.”

Tsurkov said she hoped their public campaigning in Washington would help secure the release of her sister.

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