Wrongfully Detained

2 August 2022 |

It might be surprising to learn that the majority of Americans imprisoned abroad are not the victims of terrorist groups but rather are being wrongfully detained, by foreign governments, and mostly in countries where there is a volatile relationship with the US or none at all.

“Wrongfully detained” means that individuals are being held by foreign governments, police, or security forces when there is no legal basis for doing so. When individuals are arrested under these circumstances, their rights are violated, especially freedom of movement, and it may even impact their ability to communicate with legal representation, their family, or the public.

According to the State Department, at this moment, some fifty-nine individuals – US citizens – find themselves in this uncomfortable and frightening position. For the families of all those detained, the cogs in the wheels of diplomatic negotiations seem to turn incredibly slow. The families of those persons wrongfully detained, want governments to put politics aside and release their loved ones. In most cases, the captors want something in return, and the person being held becomes leverage… a bargaining chip.

Brittney Griner, 7-time WNBA All-Star, 2-time Olympic gold medalist, and center for the WNBA Phoenix Mercury, was detained in a Russian airport on 17 February, en route to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian women’s basketball team. Authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. All of this happened a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. For fear of worsening an already tense relationship between the US and Russia, Ms. Griner’s camp opted to keep a low profile. Russian officials did not release information about her detainment until after the war began.

In May, the State Department designated Brittney Griner as wrongfully detained, indicating that even at the highest level of government, it acknowledges the fact that the WNBA superstar is a political pawn. In Brittney Griner’s case, she has not been allowed to speak with her family since her arrest in February. Her case was moved to Roger Carstens, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) – the government’s chief hostage negotiator. SPEHA was created in 2015 after several journalists and humanitarian aid workers were held captive and murdered by ISIS – and after the families of the victims, raised concerns that all was not done to bring them home safely.

In mid-June, the Russian court system announced that Ms. Griner’s trial will begin on 1 July. At the conclusion of the trial, Britney Griner was found guilty and given a 9-year sentence. There is some speculation that she will be part of a prisoner exchange, but others speculate that her release will be used to reverse sanctions placed on Russia as a result of its hostilities against Ukraine.

Prisoner exchanges are not new but are oftentimes steeped in moral complexities. Historically, prison exchanges were considered a humane practice. To some, the idea of exchanging someone wrongfully detained – innocent – for someone guilty of a heinous crime or terrorism, may seem questionable. In Brittney Griner’s case, Russia want to exchange Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, also known as the “Merchant of Death” currently serving a twenty-five year sentence in an American prison. But, to leave Griner (and many others) in prison, to have their rights violated, to be subjected to whatever conditions may exist, seems morally reprehensible.

But Brittney Griner is not the first individual to be held by a country with a personal agenda. Jason Rezaian, an Iranian American, US citizen, and Washington Post journalist, was wrongfully detained for 18 months in Iran. Mr. Rezaian was arrested, charged with espionage and propaganda against the establishment, and found guilty in a closed-door trial. He was eventually exchanged for the release of seven Iranian prisoners, for the charges dropped against fourteen others, and the release of $1.7 billion in frozen Iranian accounts.

In 2017, six high-level oil executives – the “Citgo 6” – for the Houston-based Citgo corporation were lured to Venezuela and then wrongfully detained. It is believed that Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Angel Pereira, Gustavo Cárdenas, and Jorge Toledo were arrested on fabricated charges in retaliation for the arrest and extradition of Alex Saab, personal ally, and business associate for Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro. The Citgo 6 are still being held in a Venezuelan prison, five years later, despite appeals by the US and their families for their release.

Emad Shargi was wrongfully detained in 2018 in Iran and charged with espionage, without a trial. Mr. Shargi was sentenced to ten years. Although he has dual citizenship, Iran does not recognize such. If someone travels to Iran with an Iranian passport, the person is considered to be an Iranian citizen. Iran does not care that the individual may also be a US citizen, and neither will it respect the courtesies extended to Americans traveling abroad. So, Mr. Shargi has not had access to consular assistance or diplomatic access and is still sitting in Evin prison in Iran. The Biden administration is aware of Mr. Shargi’s wrongful detainment, but has kept negotiations for his release separate from the Iran Nuclear Agreement negotiations – to prevent any suggestion of an exchange of one for the other – but where does that leave Mr. Shargi? – Sitting in a cell in Evin prison.

Myanmar is another country in which the US does not have a cordial relationship. Danny Fenster is a journalist who served in Myanmar during the 2021 coup. He had been critical of the junta, but on the day, he was to get on a plane to leave the country, he was wrongfully detained. The junta censored media outlets while it took control of the country and arrested the leadership. Mr. Fenster was charged with incitement and spreading false information and ultimately sentenced to eleven years in prison in a secret trial. A few days after his sentencing, he was released to former UN ambassador and former New Mexico Gov Bill Richardson, who had negotiated Mr. Fenster’s release. The terms of the release have not been made public; the country listed the reason for humanitarian reasons.

There are those who will argue that negotiating with governments who wrongfully detain citizens might increase (or encourage) the number of Americans detained by other countries. While it is true that there is no guarantee that whoever is exchanged will not try to do harm against the US or its allies or use whatever leverage they gain to have sanctions removed while they commit war crimes against another country – it is a chance we should take to protect our citizens here and afar. Once the highest level of the US government deems a US citizen as wrongfully detained, it should do everything in its power to bring them home, and it should not stop until the mission is complete. #ThinkingOutLoud #WrongfullyDetained #BrittneyGriner

With gratitude… Lara

Image: Brittney Griner during the Minnesota Lynx vs Phoenix Mercury at Target Center in Minneapolis MN on July 14, 2019: the Lynx won the game 75-62. Photo by Lorie Shaull


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