Poor Joe: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Worried about Brittney Griner, a 31-year-old WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist from Houston, Texas, now being held in Russia? 

With media coverage of Griner’s imprisonment at a fever pitch, and President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris even phoning Griner’s wife and responding to a letter from Griner, Griner’s plight is top of mind in Washington, D.C.

How about the plight of Paul Whelan, Mark Frerichs, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi, Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, Tomeu Vadell , Matthew Heath, Jorge Toledo, Luke Denman, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio J. Zambrano, Kai Li, Majd Kamalmaz , Shahab Dalili , Jeffery Woodke, Paul Rusesabagina, Airan Berry, Mark Swidan? All these Americans are being held in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, China, and Niger. High visibility presidential concern about them? Not so much.

The Bring our Families Home Campaign, “an organization of concerned family members of American hostages & wrongly held detainees campaigning for their immediate release”, says these are some of at least 59 Americans being wrongfully detained/held hostage abroad. 

Whelan’s sister said she was “astonished” her brother, Paul Whelan, did not get similar treatment as Griner. 

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, a Canadian with American, British, and Irish citizenship, was arrested in Russia while travelling as a tourist in December 2018 and accused of spying. On June 15, 2020, he received a 16-year prison sentence with the possibility of time in a labor camp. 

Elizabeth Whelan urged the president to discuss ways to secure her brother’s release. “Still looking for that press release saying @POTUS has spoken to anyone in OUR family about #PaulWhelan, wrongfully detained in #Russia for 3.5 years,” Elizabeth Whelan wrote. 

Before you get too sorry for President Biden, consider that much of his predicament is self-inflicted. 

Many international politics experts argue that a muted communications strategy is often the best option in seeking a path to freedom for Americans detained abroad.  But after initial muted media coverage of Griner’s case, pressure from her backers exploded. Rather than continue to treat Griner’s case as one among many, Biden chose to go full bore in her support. 

Now he’s trapped.

Not only is there an increased expectation that Biden will make a deal on Griner’s behalf, but the pressure is on to trade her freedom for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, named “The Merchant of Death” because he was alleged to be one of the world’s largest illicit arms dealers.

In 2012, Bout, a former Soviet military officer, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. He was “…international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe,” said then United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.  Amnesty International said he sold arms to sanctioned human rights abusers in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Do Americans really want him freed? Does the Biden administration?

And what about all the other Americans imprisoned in other countries? 

If Griner is freed in trade for Bout, do Paul Whelan’s family and the families of dozens of other detained Americans still languishing in foreign jails have a legitimate complaint?

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