In Hollywood movies, hostage-taking is often framed as an act committed by militant or criminal groups operating independent of a country’s government. However, right now U.S. citizens are more often taken hostage by foreign governments than by nonstate actors. Sadly, it seems that the detention of WNBA champ Brittney Griner by Russian authorities may be part of that trend.
The publicly released details about Griner’s case are sparse. This may be due to a desire by the U.S. government, the WNBA and her family to keep matters quiet for strategic reasons or for other factors, such as racial disparities in missing persons coverage. But what we know doesn’t support the theory that this is just a routine arrest.
First, the timing is suspicious. Griner was detained in February, during Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine. Then, the news about her detention was concealed. Russia released the information only later, on March 5, at one of the highest points of tension between the U.S. and Russia in decades. And Griner was purportedly denied consular access — a basic right of any foreign national in detention — until March 23. We also have no independent verification that the cannabis oil charges the Russians have leveled at her are true.
While each case is unique, Griner’s included, understanding the broader pattern of how these detentions happen and the journey to release is key to combating the practice of hostage-taking, which upends families and communities.
Americans are being arbitrarily detained for political leverage around the world, some of them in Russia, Cuba, China, Venezuela and Iran. Many are kept in poor detention conditions and subjected to mental and physical torture, lack of medical treatment and denial of legal counsel and fair trial rights. They are wives, mothers, husbands, fathers and children who usually have no connection to the trumped-up charges against them. They are being punished for political conditions they bear no responsibility for.