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Brittney Griner’s return reignites the prisoner swap debate

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By Humeyra Pamuk and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Thursday’s release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer has resurfaced an old question: Does prisoner swapping do more harm than good?

Amid the celebrations following Griner’s return, some critics, including members of Congress and federal law enforcement, have argued that such exchanges only encourage foreign states to target Americans for influence in the United States.

Families of people detained overseas dismiss that argument, saying there is no concrete evidence to support this and that the US government should focus on deterring and punishing governments that wrongfully detain or imprison US citizens.

The plight of Americans detained abroad gained visibility after Griner’s arrest in February and as families ramped up their publicity efforts, concluding that years of quiet diplomacy did little to bring their loved ones back.

The details of Griner’s release highlight the painful compromises the Biden administration faces. After months of negotiations — which US officials had hoped would bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of spying in Moscow — Russia was only willing to release Griner.

That trade meant the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian national whom US authorities have called one of the world’s top illegal arms dealers and who was caught after a global manhunt.

“Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend there is an equivalence between the Brittney Griners of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘Death Dealer,'” Senator Bob Menendez said, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We need to stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans abroad as a bargaining chip.”


The detention of Americans abroad is nothing new. From the capture by the Soviet Union of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in the 1960s to the Iran hostage crisis of the 1970s and the more recent detention of US citizens in North Korea, Iran and China, the administrations have grappled with the question of whether and when to negotiate.

The problem has become acute, with some governments appearing to be using arbitrary detention as a negotiating tactic. In one such case in 2016, North Korea arrested American college student Otto Warmbier during a dispute with the international community over that country’s missile launches. Warmbier died a few days after his return.

At the same time, friends and families of US detainees are putting public pressure on the administration. Brittney Griner’s arrest in Moscow in February on charges of possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil triggered a wave of support from fans, celebrities and politicians calling for her release and criticizing the administration Biden for not doing more.

Many of the families argue that the United States should be willing to negotiate and ignore the argument that prisoner swaps lead to more countries grabbing Americans.

“I’m 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 detained by China since 2016. “And I think the important thing to point out is the executive order that President Biden has issued, which is very clear in foreseeing proactive and punitive measures that can be imposed on these countries.”

Biden signed an executive order in July authorizing US government agencies to impose financial sanctions and other measures on those involved in the illegal detention of Americans.

The families say they have not seen the enforced execution of the order.

The US does not provide an official figure on how many US citizens are detained abroad, but the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named after an American journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Syria, says more than 60 US citizens are detained unfairly in about 18 countries.


Beyond the question of whether prisoner swaps incentivize detentions, the administration also faces criticism from law enforcement, where some question the wisdom of swapping high-profile inmates like Bout.

“I don’t think you negotiate 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 across 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 illegal detainees are often very difficult – this is just a reality – partly because of the price that must be paid to bring Americans home to their loved ones and partly because the immediate results may seem unfair or arbitrary,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said following news of Griner’s release.

Those tough choices meant Washington could either leave Whelan in Russian custody or come back empty-handed after months of negotiations. Whelan’s family called the situation “a catastrophe”.

“Where are all these people with their other solutions on how to get the Americans back?” asked Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister. “What’s the alternative? Yes, it’s terrible to send someone like Viktor Bout back, sure, but it means we bring the Americans home.”

(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Luc Cohen in New York; Writing by Don Durfee; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)