• Who Else Is Wrongly Detained?

    August 8, 2022 // No Comments »

    The rule is simple: abroad, Americans are subject to the host country’s laws and legal system, whether that be Great Britain or Russia. The Bill of Rights does not follow Americans to foreign countries, nor will the U.S. government intervene with the host country on their behalf. Try and bring some weed into Japan and if you’re caught, you’re looking at years behind bars. No matter what you were carrying would clearly be seen as a small amount for personal use back home, in Japan anything over about an ounce means you intended to sell it, and the punishment is lengthy accordingly. I should know; I spent seven years in Japan visiting American prisoners as part of my State Department job there. The top three reasons for their arrest were drugs, drugs, and drugs. Just like Stephanie Griner. I was not allowed to help you get out, or advocate for a shorter sentence.

    The only exception was if you were “wrongly detained,” a new category that allows the U.S. government to actively help free those designated. It is up to the Secretary of State to make the call, as there are no set criteria. Even the total number of American so designated is murky, somewhere around 40 out of those 4,000 some Americans locked up. One of the wrongfully detained is Stephanie Griner, held in Russia after admitting she tried to smuggle in to the country a couple of vials of cannabis oil. The U.S. announced just this week it is ready to trade a real bad guy, a Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “merchant of death” for Griner (and another American, Paul Whelan, accused of having a USB drive that contained classified information.) In April, retired U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison, was exchanged for a Russian pilot who had been in a U.S. jail since 2010.

    The problem is in looking at Griner’s case, it is very hard to see what makes her so “wrongfully” detained (as she admitted the smuggling attempt) and is being given a trial under Russian standards. Her case seems a long way from both other wrongful detentions (some we know about involve what would more readily be described as hostage situations involving terrorist elements) and other needful instances of Americans locked up abroad. Looking at just a handful of those cases it sure seems Griner benefited more from being a black, lesbian, woman athlete married to another woman in a tough midterm year than anything approaching right or wrong, never mind geopolitics that would see an arms dealer who sought harm to innocent Americans walk free.

    Consider the case in Japan of U.S. Navy lieutenant and Mormon missionary Lt. Ridge Alkonis, currently locked up on a three year sentence after two people were killed in a traffic accident doctors said may have been caused by a medical episode. The U.S. has not offered to help free him. Alkonis and his family hiked Japan’s famed Mount Fuji when on the way home Alkonis blacked out at the wheel and crashed his car, with his own family inside, in a restaurant parking lot and killed two Japanese citizens. Neurologists diagnosed Alkonis with Acute Mountain Sickness, which can cause sudden fainting up to 24 hours after rapid altitudinal change.

    Alkonis’ family offered an appropriate $1.65 million in compensation to the Japanese family for the loss of their two relatives, along with an apology. The Japanese family, however, uncharacteristically refused the settlement and instead demanded jail time for Alkonis. Senator Mike Lee of Utah claims Alkonis is being targeted as a proxy for American forces stationed in Japan, which remain unpopular among many Japanese who feel they receive special treatment under the law due to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces agreement. Alkonis, for example, will serve his term in a barracks-like prison alongside other Americans, instead of the more medieval prison conditions and isolation Japanese criminals face in their own system. On the face the case certainly looks like one unfair, with an American singled out for extraordinary punishment and wrongfully detained. Why not help Lt. Alkonis, President Biden?

    Or what about Marc Fogel? Fogel is “the other American” imprisoned in Russia on minor drug charges. Fogel previously taught history at the international Anglo-American School in Moscow, and was well-known and well-thought of by diplomats not only from the U.S. but also from Great Britain, Canada, and elsewhere. For the past 11 months, Fogel has languished in Russian detention centers following his August 2021 arrest for trying to enter the country with about half an ounce of medical marijuana he’d been prescribed in the United States for chronic pain after numerous injuries and surgeries. He is facing down a 14-year sentence. Like Griner, he has admitted his guilt, seeking to smuggle vape cartridges of marijuana into Russia. His trial included accusations of close connections to the American Embassy, was confused by a visa issue and his personal friendship with the ambassador, and false claims he aimed to sell marijuana to his students. It all lead to a tougher than usual sentence. The State Department has denied Fogel “wrongfully detained” status. Why not help Marc Fogel, President Biden?

    If neither of those cases catch your interest, President Biden, the State Department has some 4,000 more to choose from. The point is not to see Stephanie Griner suffer, the point is to ask what makes her case special enough to warrant the designation “wrongfully detained” and the offer of a lop-sided prison swap to be made. During my State Department career I visited hundreds of American prisoners abroad, from celebrities and white collar criminals dealing with multi-millions of dollars at issue to near-homeless Americans trying to make a quick drug score. Not a single one of them felt he was “rightfully detained” in every sense; most felt their sentences were too long given the minor offense they committed. But I was under strict and standing orders not to advocate for any of them, to allow the host country process to play out as it would. What makes Stephanie Griner more special than Lt. Alkonis or Marc Fogel, Mr. Biden? Will they have to wait for some future election cycle when it is their peer group a future president seeks to impress?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden

    Is Stephanie Griner “Wrongfully Detained” in Russia?

    July 17, 2022 // 2 Comments »

    The U.S. State Department estimates more than 3,000 Americans are imprisoned abroad, on grounds ranging from small amounts of marijuana up to murder. For all but a handful, the U.S. government explicitly states they cannot get you out of jail, tell a foreign court or government you are innocent, provide legal advice or represent you in court. The president certainly is not in the habit of making calls to the Thai government telling them to please let you go, you didn’t mean to have that baggie of Ecstasy in your underwear at Customs.

    The key to getting the full force of the U.S. government on your side working for your release is to be “wrongfully detained,” a qualification which applies to fewer than 40 out of those 3,000 some Americans locked up. The U.S. recently declared Stephanie Griner wrongly detained. What does all that mean?

    Near the start of the Ukraine war American WNBA star Stephanie Griner was arrested trying to enter Russia carrying vape oil which contained some sort of cannabis product illegal in Russia, entangling the U.S. citizen’s fate in the confrontation between Russia and the West. The Russian Federal Customs Service said its officials detained the player after finding vape cartridges in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, and it released a video of a Griner going through airport security.

    Normally Griner would be largely on her own. While the U.S. State Department visits Americans incarcerated abroad when that is possible (good luck to you if you’re popped in a country without U.S. diplomatic presence like Iran or North Korea, though the Swiss often will help out) to see to their welfare and try and maintain communications with home, the U.S. government will generally not get involved with your innocence or guilt, and will not make representations to the host government to free you. Most of us have seen Midnight Express and The Hangover. In the case of Russia, the U.S. specifically warns people like Stephanie Griner “do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the singling out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia.”

    Worse yet, it looks like Griner did really have that illegal substance in her possession. She just pleaded guilty in front of a Russian court. In almost every such instance she’d be on her own, but for one exception: the recent declaration by the United States that Griner is somehow “wrongly detained.”

    The wrongfully detained category grew out of a realization that a small percentage of Americans arrested abroad were indeed political prisoners, arrested abroad under a country’s (unjust) laws, or were being held beyond the normal sentence or conditions for political reasons. In other words, hostages. If a person is declared “wrongfully detained” by the U.S., the rules do a 180 and the full powers of the U.S. government are used to free you.

    Congress passed the “Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act,” named after the American missing in Iran for over 15 years. The 2020 law establishes 11 criteria for a wrongful detention designation, any one of which can be a sufficient basis to secure the detainee’s release, including “credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual,” “credible reports the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose,” “the individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence United States Government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the United States Government,” or a conclusion that U.S. “diplomatic engagement is likely necessary.” Secretary of State Blinken must personally approve such a designation, and transfer responsibility for the case from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (disclosure: where I worked for 22 years) to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

    What is next for Griner now that she has been declared wrongfully detained? Depending on the political goals of the Russians, her guilty plea may suffice. A Russian court will impose a fine or jail sentence to be waived, and Griner can be on her way home. This is most common when the American has harmed a host country national and some public “justice” needs to be seen being done. A similar outcome often arises out of humanitarian needs, where Griner is declared in need of medical care not available in Russia and the country sends her home as an act of good will.

    But given the politics of Griner’s arrest, a very likely outcome will be a prisoner exchange. The Russians are interested in the release of Viktor Bout, sentenced to 25 years in an American prison for trying to sell heavy weapons to Colombian terrorists. This would track with diplomacy just this April that lead to the exchange of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had been held for more than two years over a bar fight, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for drug smuggling. Reed’s health was cited as the motivator for the swap. One problem stands in the way of Griner’s release: it would be domestically politically difficult for the U.S. to again leave behind Paul Whelan, another former Marine, arrested in 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison, for Griner.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden