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An American teacher detained in Libya for 6 weeks is now home in the US

Fernando Espinoza, 29, landed Monday afternoon at New York’s JFK International Airport to attend a welcome party that included his mother, Sara Espinoza, and executives from the nonprofit Center Richardson, who negotiated his return.

Fernando Espinoza told CNN: “I obviously made some mistakes, but many other parties also made some mistakes, and it was all like a snowball,” Fernando Espinoza told CNN from the car en route. your hotel.

Espinoza’s arrival on US soil ended weeks of suffering for his mother, who said she was given little information about where and why her son, a former US Navy submariner, in custody – or when he will be released. Her work to secure his release comes with mounting political tensions as Libya approaches what it is supposed to be. first presidential election in a decade.

“I just feel happy and grateful that he’s back and this hasn’t lasted as long as it could have,” Sara Espinoza said.

After CNN last week published a story about her search for answers, Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister Murad Hamaima dismissed suggestions Espinoza had disappeared and said officials planned to deport him soon. more but not possible because of the Covid protocol.

Espinoza told Libyan officials he was not vaccinated against Covid-19, so they gave him the first dose and are waiting to give him a second dose, Hamaima said.

According to a statement by the Libyan government, the Libyan foreign minister intervened in the incident “to maintain the strong relationship between the United States and Libya”.

Espinoza returned to the United States on Monday via Cairo after presenting evidence of a negative PCR test result, consistent with Rules for entering Covid-19 because the countries.

A spokesman for the US State Department said officials welcomed the reports of Espinoza being released, but “due to privacy considerations, we will not go into specifics at this time. “

A long weekend leads to a long silence

Espinoza arrived in Libya in early October to start a new job teaching English at an international school in Tripoli. About a month later, he decided to go further and hired a driver to take him to the city of Sebha, a nine-hour drive south of Tripoli.

From Sebha, he planned to meet a local guide, who would take him to the Gaberoun oasis, a saltwater lake with an abandoned Bedouin village about 58 miles (93 km) west of the city. But before arriving at Sebha, he was detained, according to Libyan officials and messages he sent to his mother.

Espinoza was detained by security services for “violating procedures and staying in tense areas without authorization”, according to a Libyan government statement.

He was released and resumed his trip but was arrested upon returning to Tripoli on November 9, according to friends who received information from the school.

Deputy foreign minister Hamaima told CNN on Thursday that Espinoza “breached the visa limit,” broke his contract with the school, and left without telling anyone where he was going.

“I don’t think this is acceptable anywhere in the world,” said Hamaima.

Espinoza told CNN he was questioned about his presence in Libya, including why he left Tripoli to drive south.

“They’ve made a lot of false accusations (against me) … of espionage, covert operations, interference in elections, things like that. So they definitely made I’m scared,” he said.

Sara Espinoza (left) last saw her son in Miami in July, before he embarked on his latest trip.

The Search for Fernando

In her hometown of Miami, Sara Espinoza is increasingly worried about her son’s whereabouts.

She contacted the nearest US Embassy – in neighboring Tunisia – and consular officials there made their first call with her son in late November, they told Sara he was not Star, asked for medicine and wanted a chance to talk to her.

That opportunity came on December 21, when the mother and son had to talk for three minutes before he was asked to end the call, she said. Fernando didn’t sound very good, Sara said, and he said to her, “Most of what I do is sleep and cry and pray.”

When little progress seemed to have been made to secure her release, Sara Espinoza turned to the Richardson Center, a nonprofit organization founded by former Congressman Bill Richardson with a track record of negotiation. release hostages and prisoners.

The group negotiated the release of Espinoza with the help of the Qatari government, which has close ties to Libya, and US consular officials, the group’s vice president and chief executive officer, Mickey Bergman, told CNN. .

“Of course, every case is unique,” ​​he said. “In this case, we got in early enough that the Libyan government really wanted to resolve the situation, so it was easier on that side.”

“We are very grateful to the Libyan government for resolving this matter quickly, quickly and without problems,” he added.

Executives from the Richardson Center who helped negotiate Espinoza's release met him at the airport.

Trying to bring him home amid political strife

Sara Espinoza has raced to secure her son’s release as Libyans prepare to cast their ballots on December 24 for first presidential election since the 2011 revolution made the leader Moammar Gadhafi is dead. But with just a few days left, the election has been postponed amid disagreement over how it should be conducted and whose names will be on the ballot.

The vote is expected to take place in January, but a date has yet to be set.

Bergman of the Richardson Center said Espinoza’s detention shows how important it is for visitors to be aware of local laws and conditions. The warning is especially true for former service members, he said.

“It’s important for Americans – even if they’ve served in the military – that they are very, very careful and follow the local laws of the country they visit, be it Libya, Iraq or anywhere really he said.

Espinoza said his previous travel to developing countries gave him a false sense of security.

“I’ve become complacent, that’s for sure. And I’m a bit too comfortable and overconfident in my ability to take care of myself,” he said. “Obviously, this negative event happened and I’m going to switch things up (and) definitely be a little more cautious from now on.”

Before Espinoza was detained, he and his mother planned to spend the New Year in Tunisia. Now, they’re closer to home for the holiday – in New York.

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