Brittney Griner case throws spotlight on hostage diplomacy

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Mural of US hostages
Griner was arrested in February for possession of cannabis oil

Russia's detention of the basketball star and Olympic champion Brittney Griner has shone a spotlight on US hostage diplomacy, an issue that normally lurks in the shadows. It's also encouraged families with detained loved ones to go more public.

Ms Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February when vape cartridges containing cannabis oil - which is illegal in Russia - were found in her luggage. A few months later the sports star pleaded guilty to drug-related charges, although she said she didn't intend to break any laws.

The US claims she's being "wrongfully detained", which in effect recognises her as a political pawn.

Such cases are on the rise - the state department won't say how many exactly, but they make up "dozens" of the 64 foreign-held hostages identified by activists.

That's partly because the administration has become better at categorising detainees, but also because "the numbers are going up", said the president's point man for hostages, Ambassador Roger Carstens.

"Nations are interested in using people as political bargaining chips when they can't get what they want otherwise at the negotiating table," he told the BBC.

In fact, President Joe Biden in July declared the threat a national emergency and strengthened measures to deal with it. These include directing the government to share more information with prisoners' families, and authorising sanctions on their captors.

But the decision to go public about an offer to win Ms Griner's release was a rare, if not unprecedented, move.

The "substantial proposal" announced last week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken also included that of another American held by Moscow, security consultant Paul Whelan, who is currently serving a 16-year-sentence after being convicted as an American spy in 2020.

It led to a phone call between Mr Blinken and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Paul Whelan
Paul Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in Moscow on suspicion of spying

The unusually public nature of Ms Griner's high-profile case has also strengthened the resolve of the families of other American captives to join forces to pressure the government.

"The voice of one is easily lost," said Everett Rutherford, the uncle of Matthew Heath, a US Marine veteran who was imprisoned in Venezuela on terrorism and arms trafficking charges in 2020. "The voice of many is not so easily disposed of."

Members of Mr Heath's family are part of a newly formed campaign, "Bring Our Families Home", which has just put up a mural of detained relatives in an upmarket DC neighbourhood to highlight their plights.

Some were present at its unveiling to tell their harrowing stories.

Two people speaking at a podium
Connie Haynes, mother of detained US Marine Matthew Heath, doesn't know how much more he can handle imprisoned

"My son is not going to survive if our government does not get him home," said Connie Haynes, Mr Heath's mother, her voice quavering. "I don't know how much more he can endure."

He had been put in a freezer for 24 hours, stuffed into a box so small he could barely move, and beaten so many times both his hands had been broken, she said. He recently tried to take his own life.

Hannah Shargi told onlookers that she'd often walked past the alleyway with her father, Emad, an Iranian-American venture capitalist who has been held in Iran on spying charges for four years.

"Now he's here, larger than life," she said, along with 17 others who represent "87 years of collective detention."

According to Ms Shargi's aunt, Neda (who spells her surname Sharghi) the hostage families decided to organise after a successful prisoner swap with Russia for a former US Marine, carried out two months after Ms Griner's detention. They believed direct advocacy with the White House had played a role.

"Many of us have done research for years on what the best options are to bring our loved ones home," she said, and want to let Mr Biden know "we're on the same team".

Crowd gathered near mural
Hostage Ambassador Roger Carstens spoke at a press conference by the hostage mural

Taking the case to the public in this way is a new tactic from previous years, when families more often than not stayed silent, advised by officials that this was the best way to support delicate negotiations.

However, not all activists agree that a presidential meeting is necessary for a release, and Ambassador Carstens warned that ultimately those holding the hostages "get a strong vote".

And the dilemmas of hostage diplomacy remain, such as finding the right balance between calling too much attention to cases or engaging too quietly, and asking whether trade-offs simply encourage hostile powers to take more prisoners.

The Kremlin insists the case against Ms Griner has nothing to do with politics, but it's clearly interested in a deal, reported to involve a convicted Russian arms dealer.

Mr Blinken has emphasised that this negotiation is separate from America's complicated politics with Moscow about Ukraine, something that encouraged Ms Sharghi.

"I think it gives an opening for my brother and for the other hostages in Iran," she said. "That's the only way that we can get our Americans home."

Mr Rutherford said he believed that their message was being heard. Going public with the offer over Ms Griner's release "indicates to us that [Mr Biden] is paying attention, certainly to Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, but we think to the rest of us as well."

As the mural was unveiled, he brought a bit of welcome good news, that his nephew had managed to get through on a phone call while the event was underway.

But it is the mural itself which speaks loudest about the fear and desperation that lies behind the solidarity and the pleas to the president. Made of paper and flour-based glue, it is designed to decompose.

"It's just a reminder that time is not on our sides," said Ms Sharghi. "We are losing days and days of our lives with our loved ones. And we have to move quickly."