Concern grows for American detainees in Russian jails


FILE – Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) looks to pass as Chicago Sky center Candace Parker defends during the first half of game 1 of the WNBA basketball Finals , Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Phoenix. Griner was arrested in Russia last month at a Moscow airport after a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges. The Russian Customs Service said Saturday, March 5, 2022, that the cartridges were identified as containing oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The customs service identified the person arrested as a female player for the U.S. national team and did not specify the date of her arrest. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

(NewsNation) —  With Russian attacks on Ukraine remaining as severe as they were when the war first started weeks ago, economic sanctions crippling the Russian economy, and no end in sight in either case, the situation is getting more dire for Americans detained in Russia.

As the war in Ukraine intensifies, analysts say Russian officials see these American detainees as potential bargaining chips they can use with the West.

WNBA star Brittney Griner, of the Phoenix Mercury, who’s been playing the last seven off-seasons in Russia, was arrested last month while returning to the U.S., allegedly with cannabis oil in her luggage.

“Now that she’s being held … and now that this war is going on, she might be seen by the Russian government as a useful pawn in their struggle with the United States,” Prof. Richard Stoll, with the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said.

In a statement to NewsNation, Griner’s agent said she is not able to comment further on the specifics of her case, but “can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”

Marine veteran Trevor Reed, in August 2019, was studying Russian and visiting his girlfriend in Russia when he was sentenced and convicted to nine years in prison for an altercation in Moscow where he allegedly assaulted police officers who picked him up after a party. His family denies all allegations.

Now, he’s been held there for nearly two years, and his parents are growing worried this could keep their son away indefinitely.

“I can’t help but think that this is not going to help Trevor get released sooner, obviously,” Reed’s mother, Paula Reed, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Corporate security executive Paul Whelan is another American currently in a Russian prison after being accused of espionage.

“Paul’s wrongful detention has always been about the Russian Federation’s government extracting concessions from the U.S. government,” according to an update posted earlier this month on a GoFundMe page for Whelan established by his brother David.

Whelan’s labor camp is a 13-hour drive to Russia’s nearest occupation forces at Rostov-on-Don, meaning he is “somewhat insulated” from what the post called “Russian war crimes,” David Whelan said.

He went on to say that because of economic sanctions on Russia, “other prisoners are experiencing problems replenishing their prison accounts and phone cards.”

“A silver lining is that his U.S. dollar may go much further now with the ruble worth less than a penny,” the update said. “We are watching the impact of sanctions, expected retaliation by the Russian Federation government, and making what contingency plans we can to support (Paul Whelan).”

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