Dozens of Americans are being detained abroad. Here are some of their stories.

Photo for The Washington Post by Oliver Contreras.
President Biden holds the hand of Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, after announcing Griner’s release from Russian custody.

WNBA star Brittney Griner was released into U.S. custody Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States.

Moscow swapped the 32-year-old athlete, who was sentenced to 9 1/2 years in prison on drug smuggling charges, for notorious weapons dealer Viktor Bout.

President Biden approved the exchange, commuting Bout’s 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans, among other charges.

But even as Griner made her way home, dozens of Americans were still imprisoned abroad, including those wrongfully detained by U.S. adversaries, hostage advocates say.

According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which tracks U.S. hostages and detainees, the number of Americans wrongfully held by foreign governments has increased over the past decade.

The U.S. government doesn’t release official figures on American detainees.

According to the Foley Foundation, most of the wrongful detention cases have occurred in countries with tense or antagonistic relations with the United States, including Russia, China, Iran, Syria and Venezuela.

– – –


Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, 52, was arrested by Russian security service agents while visiting Moscow in December 2018.

He was later convicted of espionage in a trial Whelan and the U.S. government have called politically motivated. The court sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum-security prison, and he is currently being held at a penal colony east of Moscow.

Whelan celebrated Griner’s release, but had hoped that he would be included in any prisoner exchange, saying in a phone call with CNN on Thursday that he was “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release.”

“Sadly and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said at a news conference Thursday. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up.”

– – –


Independent journalist Austin Tice was kidnapped shortly after his 31st birthday while reporting in a suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, in 2012.

The Texas-born reporter was covering Syria’s civil war for U.S. media outlets, including The Washington Post.

Two months later, a video showing him blindfolded and being led by men wearing white robes and wielding weapons was posted on YouTube.

The video is the last time Tice has been seen – but his parents and U.S. officials believe that he is still alive and being held by the Syrian government.

Majd Kamalmaz, a dual U.S.-Syrian citizen, also disappeared from a government checkpoint near Damascus, where he traveled to visit an elderly relative, according to the FBI.

Kamalmaz, a psychotherapist from Arlington, Va., had been treating refugees in the region and was looking into establishing a clinic to help traumatized war victims.

– – –


Three Americans are currently imprisoned in Iran: business executives Siamak Namazi and Emad Shargi and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz. All three were convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The United States has condemned the convictions and urged Iranian authorities to release the detained Americans and allow them to leave Iran.

In October, Iran lifted a travel ban on Namazi’s father, Baquer, and granted Siamak a week-long humanitarian furlough. But authorities soon forced him back to prison.

“Siamak, and all wrongfully detained Americans, should be released and in the arms of their loving families,” Rob Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, said on the day the younger Namazi’s furlough ended.

– – –


At least four U.S. citizens are detained in Venezuela. They include former Green Berets Airan Berry and Luke Denman who were convicted in 2020 of a failed plot to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro.

Venezuela also imprisoned Los Angeles-based lawyer Eyvin Hernandez and Texas computer programmer Jerrel Kenemore on suspicion of attempting to enter the country illegally.

Both were arrested earlier this year in separate incidents in the western state of Tachira, the Associated Press reported, adding that U.S. officials see a growing trend of detentions along the Colombia-Venezuela border.

Americans trying to enter Venezuela without a visa are especially vulnerable, according to the AP.

– – –


Chinese authorities apprehended Kai Li, a 60-year-old business executive from New York, when he arrived in Shanghai in 2016. He was detained under suspicion of endangering state security, according to a U.N. working group on arbitrary detention.

A court convicted Li of spying for the FBI in 2018 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The United Nations says he was denied due process and arbitrarily detained in violation of international law.

In a statement after Griner’s release, Harrison Li, Kai Li’s son, said, “We have repeatedly asked to meet with President Biden but have not received any kind of response, even after he met with the Griner and Whelan families. We urge him to meet with our family and those of all American wrongful detainees.”

The United Nations came to the same conclusion when it examined the case of Mark Swidan, a Houston-based business executive who was arrested as he prepared to leave China after a business trip in 2012. Authorities accused Swidan of involvement in a drug trafficking conspiracy, and he was found guilty in 2019.

A court sentenced Swidan to death with a two-year reprieve – a ruling he has appealed. In an interview with a Houston-area ABC affiliate in April, Swidan’s mother, Katherine Swidan, said that he had lost more than 100 pounds and that his health was deteriorating while in detention.

“When I saw Trevor Reed coming off the plane and being exchanged, it does give me hope that maybe, the next plane, Mark will be on it,” Swidan told ABC13.