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 US 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 if it’s 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 accordingly lengthy.
I should know: I spent seven years in Japan visiting American prisoners as part of my State Department job. The top three reasons for their arrests were drugs, drugs, and drugs. Just like Brittney Griner. The difference between them and Griner was I was not allowed to help them get out, or advocate for a shorter sentence.
The only exception was if you were “wrongly detained,” a special category that allows the US 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 Americans so designated is murky.
One of the wrongfully detained is Brittney Griner, held in Russia after admitting she tried to smuggle in a couple of vials of cannabis oil. The US 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 Marine Trevor Reed, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison, was exchanged for a Russian pilot who had been in an American 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 to the smuggling attempt) and is being given a trial under Russian standards. Her case seems a long way from both other wrongful detentions (some 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 like Griner benefited more from being a black, lesbian athlete married to another woman in a tough midterm year than anything approaching right or wrong, never mind the geopolitics setting free an arms dealer who sought to harm innocent Americans.
If Griner is worth setting that sort of precedent, what about these cases?
Consider the case in Japan of Navy lieutenant and Mormon missionary Lieutenant 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 US 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, killing two Japanese citizens. Neurologists diagnosed Alkonis with Acute Mountain Sickness, which can cause sudden fainting up to 24 hours after rapid altitude change.
Alkonis’s 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, who remain unpopular among many Japanese. Alkonis will serve his term in a barracks-like prison alongside other American servicemen, instead of the more medieval prison conditions and isolation Japanese criminals face in their own system. On the face, the case certainly looks unfair. Why not help Lieutenant Alkonis, President Biden?
Or what about Marc Fogel? Fogel is “the other American” imprisoned in Russia on minor drug charges. He 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 US but also from Great Britain, Canada, and elsewhere.
For the past 11 months, Fogel has been held 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. 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. All this led 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 these cases catch your interest, the State Department has some 4,000 more to choose from. The point is not to see Brittney Griner suffer; it’s to ask what makes her case special enough to warrant the designation “wrongfully detained” and the offer of a lopsided prison swap.
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 offenses 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 Brittney Griner more special than Lieutenant Alkonis or Marc Fogel or my hundreds of cases, Mr. Biden? Will they have to wait in a foreign prison for some future election cycle when it is their peer group a future president seeks to impress?