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Opinion Why I’m so concerned for WNBA star Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner shoots during a preliminary round women's basketball game against Nigeria at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on July 27, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (Eric Gay/AP)

So far, there are few verifiable facts in the case of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner. One of the most recognizable talents in the WNBA, Griner played in Russia during the off-season to earn more money. She was detained by Russian authorities sometime last month, but her arrest wasn’t announced until this past weekend, more than a week after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Some observers cited Griner’s story to highlight how the WNBA’s lower salaries, compared with the men’s league, push its athletes to play abroad. Pay inequality is an issue that must be addressed, but those concerns shouldn’t divert our attention from the very real possibility that Griner is being held by Russia as potential leverage in possible negotiations with the United States.

I won’t repeat the charges leveled against her here, both because she is innocent until proven otherwise and because there are reasons to be deeply skeptical about Russian claims.

I am a former hostage who has been reporting for years on the cases of Americans held hostage by foreign governments. The timing of Griner’s arrest and its subsequent announcement by the Russian Federal Customs Service — just as the United States ramps up sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine — should not be accepted at face value as mere coincidence. This is especially true if, as Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) has said, she is being denied consular access.

Kate Woodsome, Jason Rezaian and Ray Whitehouse: More countries are taking Americans hostage. The U.S. is losing its ability to stop it.

Whatever the details of Griner’s case, we need to start looking at the arrests of Americans by authoritarian countries with a critical eye informed by a new reality: More Americans are being wrongfully detained abroad, especially in moments of tension or conflict.

At least two Americans — Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed — are currently unjustly held by the Russian authorities. The U.S. government classifies such politically motivated cases as “wrongful detentions,” which is how it refers to hostages held by foreign states.

Whelan, an employee of an auto parts manufacturer in Michigan who was in Russia attending a friend’s wedding, has been imprisoned since late 2018. In 2020, he was convicted of unsubstantiated charges after a secret trial and sentenced to 16 years hard labor. Reed, meanwhile, has been held in a Russian prison since 2019. He was convicted in a proceeding that the U.S. ambassador referred to as “theater of the absurd.” Both men served in the U.S. armed forces.

All these cases offer a grim reminder. Time and time again, hostage-takers are allowed to seize control of the narrative, while hostages’ governments and employers are left flat-footed.

The U.S. government needs a more robust response to these cases. It should make clear that, if a detention of an American is found to be politically motivated, there will be swift and severe consequences. The current, long-standing public approach of responding in a diplomatic and noncommittal tone, lest we further agitate the hostage-taking states, actually ensures the opposite: It leaves our citizens languishing in prison, often for years, and signals to offenders that they can get away with it.

Critically, the United States must begin to view state hostage-taking as a serial crime perpetrated by the same actors and develop effective and credible deterrents.

The Biden administration has been criticized for failing to free more Americans held hostage abroad since taking office, though Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated on numerous occasions that their safe return is a top priority. I have no doubt he feels that way, but until the U.S. government fundamentally alters its response mechanisms, the problem is unlikely to go away.

Hostage advocates and organizations that work on these cases say that many of the Americans being held by governments could be released very soon if the White House were to sign off on terms that have already been negotiated by stakeholders. People with knowledge of these cases wonder to what extent the president, known for his empathy, has been informed of deals on the table.

The parents of Trevor Reed, for example, had never spoken directly with President Biden until a phone call this week, in which they urged him to do more to secure Trevor’s release.

Griner’s arrest could change the equation. We still know very little about the situation: There is no indication that Griner’s case has officially been deemed a wrongful detention, and her agent said she could not comment further on specifics as it is an “ongoing legal matter.” I hope my fears are unfounded. But discussion of her case as a potential hostage issue has thrust the topic into our living rooms in a way that is hard to ignore.

How we address the crisis of Americans increasingly held hostage by authoritarian states is a vital national, nonpartisan conversation. Ignoring the problem — or obscuring it with diplomatic euphemisms and opacity — only helps the hostage-takers.

Griner is one of the greatest basketball players ever. Another part of her legacy — frightening though the situation is — could be bringing the issue of citizens held hostage abroad to the attention of more Americans, including the president of the United States.

Look inside the life of a family whose husband and father is held hostage abroad. Post Opinions’ new short film shows the ordeal to free him:

When American Emad Shargi is taken hostage by Iran as a pawn in nuclear negotiations with the U.S., his wife and daughters must fight to free him. (Video: The Washington Post)
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