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What is a Hostage?

Updated on February 2, 2010

A hostage is a person or thing held (usually by an enemy) as pledge or surety for the performance of certain actions. Although taking or giving hostages, formerly almost universal, has largely been discontinued, there are striking modern instances.

Civilian hostages seized by invading armies are supposed to receive humane treatment and not suffer punishment for crimes committed against the invader's forces. During World War II, however, the German Army, with governmental sanction, flouted both custom and international law by torturing and executing thousands of civilian hostages to suppress underground movements in the invaded countries. These atrocities were treated as war crimes at Nuremberg.

After the "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba in April 1961, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro held for ransom the 1,214 prisoners his forces had captured. He demanded 500 tractors from the United States in exchange. The American committee that had been formed to raise the money found that Castro wanted 500 large 30-ton vehicles worth $28 million, whereas they thought he had asked for small agricultural tractors worth $3.5 million. Consequently, no agreement was reached for the exchange.

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