©Health & Fitness Journal. FILE PHOTO: U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, walks after the court ruling in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia, August 4, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia N
By Humeyra Pamuk and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Health & Fitness Journal) – Thursday’s release of US basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer has reopened an age-old question: does the prisoner swap do more harm than good?
Amid the celebrations following Griner’s return, some critics, including members of Congress and federal law enforcement officials, argued that such deals only encourage foreign states to target Americans in order to influence the United States.
The families of those detained abroad reject that argument, saying there is no clear evidence and that the US government should focus on deterring and punishing governments that wrongfully detain or detain US citizens.
The plight of American inmates abroad became apparent following Griner’s arrest in February and as families stepped up their outreach efforts, concluding that years of quiet diplomacy did little to bring loved ones back.
The details of Griner’s release highlight the painful compromises facing the Biden administration. After months of negotiations — which US officials had hoped would bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a former US Marine whom Moscow has accused of espionage — Russia was only willing to release Griner.
That deal meant a release from prison for Viktor Bout, a Russian national who US authorities have described as one of the world’s top illegal arms dealers and who was arrested after a global manhunt.
“The Russians and other regimes that are holding American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equality between the Brittney Griners of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘dealer of death,'” said Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans abroad as bargaining chips.”
INCREASE IN DETENTIONS
The incarceration of Americans abroad is not new. From the Soviet Union’s capture of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in the 1960s, to the Iran hostage crisis of the 1970s, to the recent detentions of US citizens in North Korea, Iran and China, governments have grappled with the issue wrestled with whether and when to negotiate.
The problem has become acute as some governments use seemingly arbitrary arrests as a negotiating tactic. In one such case in 2016, North Korea detained American college student Otto Warmbier during a dispute with the international community over the country’s missile launches. Warmbier died just days after his return.
At the same time, friends and family members of US prisoners are putting public pressure on the administration. The February arrest of Brittney Griner in Moscow for possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil sparked a wave of support from fans, celebrities and politicians, who called for her release and criticized the Biden administration for not doing more.
Many of the families argue that the US should be willing to negotiate, dismissing the argument that the prisoner swap will lead to more countries snapping Americans.
“I am not aware of any concrete evidence that this will encourage more hostage-taking,” said Harrison Li, son of Chinese-American Kai Li, who has been jailed by China since 2016. “And I think the most important thing to emphasize is the executive order that President Biden issued, which is very clearly to provide for proactive punitive measures that can be taken against these countries.
Biden signed an executive order in July authorizing U.S. government agencies to impose financial penalties and other measures on those complicit in the wrongful detention of Americans.
Families say they have seen no violent implementation of the order.
The United States does not provide official figures on how many US citizens are being held abroad, but the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named for an American journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Syria, says more than 60 US citizens are unjustly detained 18 countries are imprisoned.
Aside from questioning whether prisoner swaps provide an incentive for incarcerations, the administration also faces criticism from law enforcement, where some question the wisdom of trading in high-profile convicts like Bout.
“I don’t think you deal with terrorists, it’s a slippery slope, it doesn’t end well,” said Robert Zachariasiewicz, a former US Drug Enforcement Administration agent who helped lead the team that arrested Bout.
“I’ve spoken to a large number of people throughout the Justice Department at all levels. They’re frustrated, they’re disappointed, they’re disenfranchised.”
The administration recognizes the difficulties.
“Negotiations for the release of those wrongly imprisoned are often very difficult — it’s just a reality — in part because of the price that must be paid to bring Americans home to their loved ones, and in part because of the immediate results may feel unfair or arbitrary. ‘ White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said after news of Griner’s release.
These tough decisions meant Washington could either leave Whelan in Russian custody or return empty-handed after months of negotiations. Whelan’s family called the situation “a disaster”.
“Where are all these people with their other solutions for getting the Americans back?” asked Elizabeth Whelan, sister of Paul Whelan. “What’s the alternative? Yes, it sure is awful sending someone like Viktor Bout back, but it means we are bringing Americans home.”