Freedom for Brittney Griner (and Paul Whelan)

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Inside a Russian court, off the basketball court, Brittney Griner looks understandably uncomfortable. The eight-time Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) all-star towers over the Russian prosecutor. 

When she arrives back in court on Thursday, the 6’ 9” Olympic gold medalist can only hope there is a deal in the works to free her or minimize the amount of time she spends in jail following her February arrest and detention on charges of bringing cannabis oil into Russia.

Griner pleaded guilty to the charges on July 7, telling the court she had not intended to commit a crime but acknowledging that she carried the substance into the country. Despite an exchange of letters with President Biden, and an increasingly loud public campaign pressing for her release, she could face as much as 10 years in a Russian prison given the current hostilities between Moscow and Washington as the war in Ukraine rages on.

How many Americans are currently detained overseas, and who tries to ensure they return safely? The exact number of detainees is classified. But the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named after an American journalist who was abducted and killed in Syria, lists more than 60 U.S. citizens held in countries, including Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Yemen. 

Although the State Department is critical to securing freedom for Americans held overseas, private citizens and organizations play a useful role. The Richardson Center, run by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, works to negotiate prison and hostage releases, and there is speculation that he will go to Moscow hoping to bring Griner home. Citizen diplomacy should be encouraged in cooperation with formal channels.

Richardson was able to secure the release of Otto Warmbier after 17 months held in North Korea for the crime of stealing a poster. Sadly, Warmbier came home in a coma in June 2017 and died a few days later.

Getting an American prisoner freed is hard work, as I saw first-hand with my friend Haleh Esfandiari, who was jailed for four months in Iran. Esfandiari, then director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was jailed in 2007 while visiting her mother in Tehran. She was wrongly accused of acting against national security. Ultimately, her release came about because of public and private pressure on the Iranian government — a tough balancing act particularly when relations between the negotiating nations are bad.

In Griner’s case, there is already talk of Russian interest in a prisoner swap, possibly between Griner and Viktor Bout, an arms dealer arrested in the United States in 2008 and later sentenced to 25 years in prison. 

Despite the glaring disparities in the cases, and the political backlash that accompanies a prison swap, even talk of a deal could lead to something for Griner, as it did when U.S. Marine Trevor Reed was released after three years of detention in Russia, at the same time that a sentence for a Russian pilot jailed in the United States was commuted.

I hope any deal for Griner includes the release of American businessman Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial U.S. officials say was unjust. Whelan’s family has been fighting for his release, including through personal calls with the White House, which some have criticized.

Let’s hope this week brings good news from Moscow. Every human being deserves the right to a fair trial, and nobody should become a political pawn in a wider global conflict.

This piece is republished from The Hill.

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