Last week, I wrote in the Federalist about Brittney Griner, a WNBA Phoenix Mercury player, who was arrested in Russia in February for possession of a small amount of cannabis oil.
Since then, Griner’s trial has been proceeding as scheduled. In Russia, these cases are tried by judgesno juries, and the acquittal rate is less than 1%.
It’s hard for Americans to understand why a respectable athlete like Griner should be arrested for possessing a tiny amount of cannabis oil that she says is for medical purposes and would be legal in many parts of the United States. United.
However, each country makes its own laws. American notions of public behavior, drug use, sex, and crime have evolved over centuries from our own traditions, as they have in other countries. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the State Department warns American travelers that “penalties for importing, manufacturing, possessing, and consuming alcohol or illegal drugs…are severe. Convicted offenders can expect long prison sentences, heavy fines, public floggings and deportation. The penalty for drug trafficking is death.
In Singapore, there are “severe penalties for drug-related charges, including the death penalty or caning” and “compulsory caning (a form of corporal punishment) for certain vandalism offences.”
Nearly 45 million Americans traveled abroad in 2019, and the numbers are already rising now that COVID-19 is receding. Thousands are arrested each year in foreign countries for various reasons, and a few thousand are in overseas prisons at any one time.
According to a State Department source quoted in The Wall Street Journal in 2017, about 100 of them “are hostages of rogue states and terrorist groups.” Colombian FARC and Mexican cartels, as well as terrorists and criminal syndicates in many other countries, have kidnapped and killed foreign citizens.
The kidnappers are holding them because they want something for their release. Hostage taking can be a very profitable business. The only way to end it is not to pay ransoms. In this way, the hostage has no value.
This tough stance comes at a pitiful price. In 1977, the Red Army Faction (aka Baader-Meinhof Gang) kidnapped a wealthy industrialist and attempted to force the German government to release his comrades from prison. The then German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt refused and the hostage was killed.
In 2002, while I was a policy officer in New Delhi, a Mumbai-based journalist, Daniel Pearl, was brutally killed by terrorists in Pakistan after their demands were not met. Extraordinary efforts by US government agencies to find and release him were unsuccessful.
As horrible as it sounds, giving ransoms would mean that families and the government would be pressed for every penny and concession by rogue actors around the world. Pearl’s captors had demanded the release of many imprisoned terrorists and other conditions that could not have been met without endangering many other Americans and American interests.
This brings us back to Griner. Although she was a successful basketball player in the United States, WNBA salaries were not as lucrative as those in the men’s league, and like others, Griner supplemented her income by playing basketball. professional ball for an off-season Russian team.
She was arrested in February, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, on January 23, the State Department had issued a “do not travel” warning for Russia. The state has long warned Americans of the dangers of traveling to this country, noting high conviction rates, draconian sentences and harsh prison conditions.
Griner is treated under Russian law, which, unlike Arizona law, does not allow the use or possession of marijuana for medical (or other) purposes. In May, the Biden administration declared her “wrongfully detained,” putting her in the same category as Paul Whelan, an American sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 for espionage – a charge it denies and the government denies. American also rejects.
The US government distinguishes between Americans who are arrested and given due process and those who are “wrongfully detained”. In the first instance, US embassies and consulates provide consular services, including prison visits, assistance in finding a lawyer, advocating with the host government for fair treatment of prisoners, and protesting abuses.
In cases of “wrongful detention,” the State Department goes to extra lengths to secure the release of the detainee, including through diplomatic pressure and negotiation. A recent executive order from President Joe Biden expanded and outlined these additional steps.
Griner clearly poses no risk to Russian public safety. His detention and trial for possessing a tiny amount of cannabis oil seems unreasonably harsh on Americans. Obviously, the Russian court could show humanity and release her with a sentence and a fine proportional to the small amount of drugs she allegedly possessed when she was arrested.
However, the US government’s labeling Griner a “wrongfully detained” puts her in a category with other prisoners, whose charges are baseless or purely political in nature and who have not pleaded guilty.
Mark Fogel, an American teacher working in Russia, was arrested last August, also for possession of a small amount of medical marijuana. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a Russian judge. He was not declared “wrongfully detained” by the State Department.
Fogel’s treatment in Russia, long before the invasion of Ukraine, indicates that Griner is not being held hostage by a rogue state, but is being treated according to Russian law, even if it differs from American law. Declaring Griner “wrongfully detained” and making further efforts to secure her release, including considering prisoner swaps, seems arbitrary and based more on her fame and political worth than on the nature of her case.
Certainly, Americans abroad should be treated the same, regardless of their status or connections in their home country.
Americans who knowingly take the risk of traveling to dangerous countries beyond the reach of American aid deserve our sympathy, but they should not expect extreme measures to secure their release.
CNN reported that there was a deal in the works to free Griner and Whelan in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bout was one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers, putting weapons into the hands of dictators, terrorists, criminals and rogue actors around the world for great personal profit. He seems to have contacts within the Russian government.
Bout was captured by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in Thailand in 2008 after a long, difficult, and labor-intensive and costly operation, and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012, meaning that he has 15 years left to serve.
This law enforcement coup has set a powerful example that the United States will patiently follow and catch those who break our laws and threaten our citizens.
As an individual, I would do whatever I could to get my own release if I were in Griner’s shoes. One can fully understand his efforts and those of his family to exert as much public pressure as possible on the government to obtain his release at all costs.
As a statesman, however, I should look at the big picture and think about the ultimate costs of negotiation. Securing Griner’s freedom at the cost of freeing a dangerous man like Bout will bring short-term humanitarian and political rewards to the Biden administration, but it would come at the expense of long-term national security interests.
Biden may remember from his time as vice president the example of the then U.S. Army sergeant. Bowe Bergdahl. The Obama administration’s 2014 exchange of Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was not only illegal, experts say, but it then provided four senior officials to the recycled Taliban government that took over. after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
In pursuit of a tactical goal, however sympathetic, the Biden administration is setting a dangerous and costly strategic precedent that could jeopardize the lives of future American travelers.
In the future, American families will demand similar interventions for their detained loved ones, an expectation that future administrations may be unwilling or unable to meet.
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