Griner's detention shines light on other Americans wrongfully detained

Families of Americans who remain wrongfully detained hope the spotlight on Brittney Griner's detention will help bring their loved ones home, too.
Posted at 12:04 PM, May 18, 2023

In a Washington, D.C., alleyway, a vigil comes alive as the sun begins to set. On the walls are the faces of Americans who are wrongfully detained overseas; their families pushing for the White House to bring them home.

"We've heard nothing from the White House about a meeting," said Neda Sharghi, who leads the Bring Our Families Home campaign. "So, on the one hand, we're doing great as a campaign. On the other hand, my brother is still not home."

The mural in the Georgetown neighborhood is the work of the BOFH campaign.

For Sharghi, the work is personal. Her brother, Emad, is an American citizen who's been held in Iran for five years, on what the family says are false accusations of espionage. They hear from him occasionally, when he's allowed a call home.

"It's difficult to hear his voice and it's difficult to keep the hope up for him," Sharghi said.

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However, hope is what keeps Kay Denman going. The Venezuelan government claims her son, Luke, was involved in an attempted coup.

"This has been the longest it's ever been that I haven't been able to touch him," she said.

He is one of several Americans currently being held in prison in Venezuela. Several others held there were recently released.

"I haven't felt so much encouragement in many years," Denman said. "The positivity of everybody and people wanting to work with us."

There are at least 53 Americans wrongfully detained overseas, according to the James Foley Foundation, which was established in honor of Foley — an American journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Syria.

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Of those Americans held overseas, 75% of them are in countries that have strained or nonexistent relations with the U.S., including Iran, China, Venezuela, Syria and Russia. 

"Unfortunately, you don't fully understand what that's like until you've been in that position yourself," said former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed. Reed was held in a Russian prison for nearly three years, before his release during a prisoner swap last year.

"Being detained anywhere wrongfully is a nightmare, obviously," he said, "but the conditions in Russia are, needless to say, terrible."

More than most, Reed understands what Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich could face in Russian detention.

"For the entire almost three years that I was there, I was only able to see the sky and like sunlight there, directly, maybe a handful of times — maybe five times — just while being transported from like a vehicle into court," he said. "You know, the rest of the time you're living in dungeon-type conditions."

His advice to Gershkovich's family is to keep pushing and not keep quiet.

"Being vocal with the news is extremely important," Reed said. "A lot of it was my family: I knew that they were fighting for me and that they were there for me and that they were going to do whatever it took to get me back."

Keeping quiet about wrongful detentions overseas is what families in these situations were advised to do in the past, but Sharghi said that is changing."

I think Brittney Griner and Cherelle Griner really changed the face of how we look at wrongful detainees and hostages. They have really been obviously very public about it. And because of them, more Americans know about it," Sharghi said. "So, thanks to them, I think we will never go back into the shadows."