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Brittney Griner’s Case Draws Attention to ‘Wrongful Detentions’


WASHINGTON — Brittney Griner. Austin Tice. The Citgo 6. And now, potentially, three American military veterans who were captured by enemy forces after traveling to Ukraine to fight Russia.

They’re amongst nearly 50 Americans who the State Department believes are wrongfully detained by foreign governments. No less than a dozen more Americans are being held as hostages — including by extremist groups — or on criminal charges that their families dispute.

Americans are increasingly attractive targets for U.S. adversaries — including China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela — trying to use them as political pawns in battles with the US.

Ms. Griner, knowledgeable basketball player, is probably essentially the most high-profile American to be snared by what the State Department has called dubious charges. She was detained in February at an airport near Moscow after authorities said they found hashish oil in her luggage. Her arrest got here just days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, which is being armed by the US and its allies.

This past week, Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, said the Biden administration would proceed to work to be certain that that Ms. Griner, Paul Whelan — one other American held by Moscow — and “all unjustly detained Americans and hostages are home safely.”

Here’s a have a look at “wrongful detentions,” as they’re known, and among the struggles of Americans held overseas.

Generally, an American who’s held by a foreign government for the needs of influencing U.S. policy or extracting political or economic concessions from Washington is taken into account “wrongfully detained.” In these cases, negotiations between the US and the opposite government are key to securing the American’s freedom.

The State Department doesn’t release the precise variety of Americans that it has determined are in that category. But a senior State Department official said there have been 40 to 50 wrongfully detained Americans abroad.

“Hostage” is a blanket term used to explain Americans who’ve been blocked from leaving a foreign country. Some are held by terrorist organizations or other groups with whom the State Department doesn’t have diplomatic relations. In these cases, the F.B.I. and other intelligence or law enforcement agencies lead negotiations.

In accordance with the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named for a journalist who was killed in Syria by the Islamic State in 2014, 64 Americans are wrongfully detained abroad or being held hostage.

What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia

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Why was she in Russia? Griner was in Russia playing for a global team through the W.N.B.A. off-season. Trading rest for overseas competition is common among the many league’s players for a lot of reasons, but often the most important motivation is money.

Does this have anything to do with Ukraine? Ms. Griner’s detention comes during an inflamed standoff between Russia and the US over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however it remains to be unclear whether Russia might need targeted Ms. Griner as leverage against the US.

A wrongful detention can span a number of days or perhaps weeks, or last years. Certainly one of the longest-detained Americans is Mr. Tice, a contract journalist who was captured in Syria in 2012. U.S. officials imagine he’s being held by the Syrian government, which denies it.

In a CBS News interview on Wednesday, Mr. Tice’s parents urged the Biden administration to satisfy with Syrian government officials although diplomatic relations between the 2 countries have been formally suspended since 2012. “That’s what’s going to bring Austin home,” said his mother, Debra Tice. President Biden met with Mr. Tice’s parents in May and promised “to work through all available avenues” for his release, in keeping with a White House statement.

Siamak Namazi, an American detained in Iran, said last month that the Iranian government would apparently free him and its other captives, including his father, provided that the Biden administration offered “sufficient incentives.”

“Tehran appears to be demanding more for our release than the White House can stomach,” Mr. Namazi, who has been held in Iran since 2015, wrote in a guest essay for The Latest York Times.

The State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs handles negotiations for wrongfully detained Americans.

The office has grown to about 25 negotiators and other officials in recent times, up from five, as more Americans are detained by foreign governments. Each case is assigned an authority on the country where the person is being held.

The method is incredibly difficult, said the senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named to explain some functions of the office.

All the foreign governments which might be detaining Americans have, at best, rocky relations with the US. In some cases, like Iran, messages are sent through other governments that function intermediaries; in others, U.S. officials work through levels of the foreign government’s bureaucracy to get to someone senior enough to influence a call.

The communications are intended to strengthen the results of continuous to carry Americans captive, the official said.

He said foreign governments often felt as in the event that they were the aggrieved party and typically began with demands that he called unreasonable.

The State Department doesn’t provide legal assistance to the detained Americans or their families.

A 2015 directive by President Barack Obama prohibits promising “ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes or other acts of concession” to bring detained Americans home. The policy takes away key incentives for hostage takers to detain Americans in the primary place and prevents the exchange of U.S. revenue or other resources that might be used for other nefarious activities, the document notes.

But there have been quite a few prisoner swaps with foreign governments to free detained Americans — most recently Trevor Reed, who was held for greater than two years in Russia before his release in April. A Russian pilot who was imprisoned in the US on cocaine trafficking charges was concurrently released as a part of the negotiations.

Mr. Reed had suffered from tuberculosis while in prison, making his case all of the more urgent.

Similarly, U.S. officials late last month tried to influence the Venezuelan government to release Matthew Heath from an underground prison cell for humanitarian reasons after his family said he had tried to kill himself. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has refused, although he freed two other Americans in March.

The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.

Iran is holding Mr. Namazi and three other Americans while Tehran negotiates with world powers over limiting its nuclear program. The chief U.S. negotiator, Robert Malley, has said the fate of the detained Americans will not be directly tied to the talks.

“But I’ll say it is vitally hard for us to assume getting back into the nuclear deal while 4 innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran,” he told Reuters in January.

It depends.

In some cases, major displays of public pressure won’t help matters, the senior State Department official said. Fear of scary an already hostile government is amongst the explanations negotiations are conducted in secret.

Members of the family of many wrongfully detained Americans are also cautious about discussing the main points of cases as relayed to them by the State Department or other officials — partially for security reasons and partially to make sure the U.S. government doesn’t hold back any updates.

But some have arrange advocacy networks to pressure the U.S. government to barter more aggressively and, above all, to make sure that their family members usually are not forgotten.

“We get up every single day knowing that they’re suffering excess of we could imagine — a lot in order that lots of them dread waking up in any respect,” the relatives of 19 Americans captured abroad wrote in a letter to Mr. Biden in June.

Ms. Griner used the general public attention to her case to ask Mr. Biden to intervene not only on her behalf, but in addition on behalf of other Americans who’re wrongfully detained.

“I realize you’re coping with a lot, but please don’t ignore me and the opposite American detainees,” she said in a handwritten note to the president this month. “Please do all you may to bring us home.”

Russia has hinted at wanting to swap Ms. Griner for Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer who was convicted of offering to sell weapons, including antiaircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

After Ms. Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges this month, maintaining that she didn’t intend to interrupt the law, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov of Russia said that the “hype and publicity” surrounding her detention “creates interference within the truest sense of the word.”

In some situations, particularly when the Americans are already well-known, the State Department official said public attention could help.

But most of the time, and even when it appears outwardly that negotiations are at a halt, officials are quietly working on the case, he said.

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