A recent photo showing journalist Jumpei Yasuda pleading for his last chance to live is not an empty threat, according to a Syrian liaison between the media and the people holding him hostage, who have reportedly set a one-month deadline.
“They want $10 million in exchange and if they don’t get it they’re going to trade him to ISIS to get back their own people,” Syrian journalist Tarik Abdul Hak, who has been involved in the negotiations, told The Japan Times through an interpreter Monday.
ISIS is one of the acronyms used to refer to the Islamic State militant group.
Abdul Hak explained he was appointed by a mediator who has been holding direct talks with the group holding Yasuda hostage. The mediator provides Abdul Hak, the sole authorized journalist with authority to contact other media outlets in order to avoid the spread of misleading information, with pertinent facts about Yasuda.
In the early hours on Monday, Abdul Hak distributed a photo of Yasuda sporting a long beard and wearing an orange outfit resembling that worn by hostages held by the Islamic State group before they were beheaded — which was seen as a message to the Japanese government.
Abdul Hak confirmed, without specifying the location or sharing any details about the kidnappers, that the photo was taken Sunday in Syria. He also explained that his role is limited only to conveying messages and that asking questions might worsen Yasuda’s already dire situation.
But this isn’t the first such appeal that has been addressed to Tokyo.
Abdul Hak lamented that Yasuda’s pleas have so far been ignored by the government. In mid-March he posted a video of Yasuda on the Internet, which sparked speculation of ransom demands and behind-the-scenes contact between his kidnappers and Tokyo. The Japanese government said it was unaware of any ransom demands.
Abdul Hak said that no one from the Japanese side has so far initiated or joined the talks to negotiate Yasuda’s freedom.
“Yasuda is miserable. He disobeyed the government, but he doesn’t deserve to be ignored, because if he is sent to ISIS, he will surely die,” he said.
In one month it will be exactly one year since Yasuda was captured, Abdul Hak said, confirming speculation that he was taken soon after entering Syria in early July. It is believed he was kidnapped just outside the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria.
Abdul Hak said the kidnappers, believed to be a branch of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, set the starting demand at $10 million but are open to negotiations. He estimated the price may drop to around $3 million.
“That would be the same amount they took for each of the three Spaniards kidnapped in Aleppo,” northern Syria, around the same time as Yasuda. They were released in early May.
He said the same mediator was involved in the negotiations that led to the Spaniards’ release.
Now they have only Yasuda and want to close his case, the Syrian said.
He pointed out that escalating clashes between Islamic State fighters and rebels as well as military intervention in Syria might have triggered the kidnappers’ decision.
Abdul Hak said: “Everybody is bombing Syria. We don’t know who is targeting who. … No one in Syria is secure. What’s the point in waiting?
“If Yasuda dies in one of the air raids they will lose their last asset,” he pointed out. “They might even give him to anybody who would give them money, which shows how meaningless for them his fate is.”
Abdul Hak said that Yasuda’s physical condition is satisfactory as he is having regular doctor’s visits and eats well. Being a healthy hostage makes him a better asset to bargain over.
He added that Nusra Front is easier to negotiate with as Islamic State might demand a sum as high as $100 million.
He suggested that the Japanese government could turn to other countries for help.
“I am aware Japan doesn’t want to negotiate with the terrorists, but they don’t need to. Why don’t they ask Qatar’s help? They helped solve the Spanish case,” he said.
He lamented that the fact that “nobody comes to save Yasuda” might have affected his mental condition.
“I’m worrying about his mental state,” he said. “If you’re in captivity, even if you are in a palace, your morale will be poor; he hasn’t spoken to his family in almost a year and it must be depressing.”
Abdul Hak said he has been contributing voluntarily.
“I’m just trying to get this poor guy released, get him free,” he said. “The Japanese government knows of me and the mediator, but there’s been no contact.”
Interpretation was provided by Khaldon Azhari