Brittney Griner, the WNBA athlete accused of drugs in Russia as Moscow continues its war in Ukraine, may be just the latest victim of a practice so common it has its own name: hostage diplomacy.
The US government formally classifies Ms. Griner as “wrongly detained,” meaning she believes the charges against her are false.
A number of Americans have been dragged along by hostile governments who wanted to use them as bargaining chips as part of a larger conflict with Washington.
In early 2016, North Korea arrested Otto F. Warmbier, a student who was visiting with a group of tourists, and released him 17 months later in a coma and days after death.
Also in 2016, Turkey arrested a visiting pastor, Andrew Brunson, on charges of espionage. The case was widely seen as an attempt to pressure Washington to extradite a Turkish dissident living in the United States. Mr Brunson was released in 2018 amid warming diplomatic ties.
Venezuela arrested six US oil executives in 2017 after the Trump administration secretly participated in talks to overthrow that country’s government. Venezuela released one of those executives in March this year, along with an American tourist detained last year for bringing in a photography drone. Their releases came as Washington discussed renewed oil imports from Venezuela to curb rising prices.
Iran is considered one of the top offenders when it comes to hostage diplomacy, as it has arrested dozens of people with dual citizenship, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was imprisoned from 2014 to 2016 on false charges of espionage. In 2009, Iran arrested three American hikers near Iraq’s border with the country amid mounting tensions over the country’s nuclear program.
The walkers’ fate hung for two years, forcing Washington to weigh the issue alongside its nuclear demands on Tehran. The Americans were released as reformists, preferring involvement with Washington, came to power within Iran at the expense of hardliners pushing for a confrontation with the West.
“There’s very little you can do to prevent another state from engaging in hostage diplomacy,” Van Jackson, a political scientist at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told The Diplomat, a magazine for international affairs.
While the practice is most associated with pariah states that have little international reputation or foreign tourism to lose, China has repeatedly detained Western nationals under similar circumstances.
In 2018, shortly after Canadian authorities detained a Chinese telecom manager on extradition charges, China arrested two Canadian citizens. Although Beijing denied they were hostages, it freed them the same day Canada released the Chinese executive.