Nearly a week after Russian media revealed that Brittney Griner was being held in police custody, precious little information exists about Griner’s status. Multiple organizations have issued statements in support of Griner, and Rep. Colin Allred of Texas says he is working with the State Department to chart a path forward to secure Griner’s release. However, there has not been a coordinated public effort on behalf of the US government, WNBA, and Griner’s other allies.
The decision to keep Griner’s case private could be calculated to avoid making Griner a political pawn, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t actors working behind the scenes to bring the WNBA star home. Nevertheless, there are some who believe that the United States government should be doing more to help Griner, especially as multiple hostage situations involving Americans abroad mount.
Jason Rezaian, a former hostage in Iran, penned an opinion for the Washington Post that Griner’s detention is the latest push for the United States to strengthen its reaction when Americans are taken hostage:
The U.S. government needs a more robust response to these cases. It should make clear that, if a detention of an American is found to be politically motivated, there will be swift and severe consequences. The current, long-standing public approach of responding in a diplomatic and noncommittal tone, lest we further agitate the hostage-taking states, actually ensures the opposite: It leaves our citizens languishing in prison, often for years, and signals to offenders that they can get away with it.
Critically, the United States must begin to view state hostage-taking as a serial crime perpetrated by the same actors and develop effective and credible deterrents.
The Biden administration has been criticized for failing to free more Americans held hostage abroad since taking office, though Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated on numerous occasions that their safe return is a top priority. I have no doubt he feels that way, but until the U.S. government fundamentally alters its response mechanisms, the problem is unlikely to go away.
Griner is not the only American currently being detained overseas. Rezaian notes the cases of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, each of who he says is “unjustly” being held:
Whelan, an employee of an auto parts manufacturer in Michigan who was in Russia attending a friend’s wedding, has been imprisoned since late 2018. In 2020, he was convicted of unsubstantiated charges after a secret trial and sentenced to 16 years hard labor. Reed, meanwhile, has been held in a Russian prison since 2019. He was convicted in a proceeding that the U.S. ambassador referred to as “theater of the absurd.” Both men served in the U.S. armed forces.
The Wall Street Journal mentioned additional instances of Americans who spent numerous months in Russian police custody in a story about the long road ahead for Griner, including a schoolteacher who remains detained after being arrested at the Moscow airport last summer for hashish oil in his bags. Per the WSJ, Russian investigators will have at least two months to build a case against Griner, and the acquittal rate for persons who have been arrested is less than one percent.
Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American who was arrested during a connection at the Moscow airport and charged with drug smuggling with less than 10 grams of marijuana in her luggage, was sentenced and denied her appeal after a six-month legal process. She only earned her release via a pardon from Vladimir Putin.
That type of precedent is what Rezaian is wary of as Griner continues to remain in Russia. The United States government needs to be responsible for her safety because the Russian legal system is not built to do her any favors.