Column: If we want Russia to free Brittney Griner, Americans must show some principles ourselves

Brittney Griner entering a courtroom
Brittney Griner enters a courtroom outside Moscow for a hearing on Monday. Her trial on drug charges begins Friday.
(Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)

Asadullah Haroon Gul went home last week.

Since 2007, the Afghan native had been detained at Guantanamo Bay — without a trial. Serendipitous timing, wouldn’t you say?

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

Just as the Supreme Court was threatening half a century of progress on human rights as it overturned Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. also took time to remind the world that:

1. the greatest democracy on the planet was almost killed off by a former reality TV host, and

2. we’ve kept a man in prison for 15 years without a trial.

America … you in danger, girl.

And no, I’m not suggesting we are the villains in this story. I am simply pointing out we are not the only ones with a story to tell. The world hears our voice, but it also sees our actions. The more those two drift apart, the more interesting observers will find the other stories about who and what we are.


My client Jumah Al-Dossari was imprisoned at Guantanamo for more than five years. His detention made the prison a symbol of human rights abuses.

Jan. 10, 2022

Keeping a prisoner detained for 15 years without a trial is more than just a bad look: It’s the antithesis of who we say we are. But to keep that same prisoner detained months after one of our own federal judges ruled that doing so was unlawful … well, with this kind of mentality here in the U.S., it’s no mystery why some of our friends give us the side eye.

A Pew Research Center poll last year found that people in only 17% of advanced economies say democracy in the U.S. “is a good example for others to follow.” The rest of the developed world either thinks the U.S. “used to be a good example but has not been in recent years” or believes we never were. I guess our friends noticed when we swapped “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” for “Build the wall.”

Life didn’t stop while we were held for years inside the prison. We also dreamed and even followed U.S. politics.

Aug. 15, 2021

In the short term, maybe this slippage in standing doesn’t have many practical effects. After all, one of the benefits of being a superpower is having the resources to pay for friends and buy influence. But we are kidding ourselves if we believe our hypocrisy hasn’t gotten stale.

I am concerned about our diminished moral standing in general and especially how that decline may affect Brittney Griner, the basketball star from Texas who was detained by the Russian government in February and accused of possession of hashish oil. Griner has been held since then and faces trial starting Friday.


Like many Americans, I want her home. And I am hopeful the State Department can reach a deal with Russia to do just that. Despite the United States’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two nations did manage a prisoner swap that enabled a former Marine, Trevor Reed, to come home in April.

But Reed had been arrested in 2019. Even if a similar deal is possible for Griner, it may not be reached anytime soon. Jason Rezaian, the former Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post who was arrested in 2014, titled his book “Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison.” He was held for nine months before his lawyers were even told details of the charges against him.

Another American, Paul Whelan, was arrested in Russia in 2018, accused of espionage, and he still is not home.

None of these arrests have been viewed as justified by the United States. The arresting countries feel differently — and insist on telling their own stories.

So what story are we telling about U.S. values when we keep prisoners from other countries locked away for more than a decade without due process?

Despite our vast resources, when it comes to securing the release of Americans who are unjustly detained around the world, there is only so much that even President Biden or Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken can do. But when it comes to freeing individuals we unjustly hold prisoner ourselves, well, let’s just say the president has some pull.


It’s been 20 years since we opened Guantanamo Bay as a war prison, and for most of its existence, the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has been someone who campaigned on promises to close it. With Gul out, the number is now down to 36 of the nearly 800 Muslim men and boys who have passed through Guantanamo. According to the ACLU, many of the remaining detainees have never been charged with a crime and 14 have been cleared for transfer or release by our military and national security agencies. Some of those cleared have been waiting to go home for years.

By all means, our country should continue to speak out against human rights violations. But you know what would help our messaging? Ending the practice of indefinite imprisonment without a trial. Considering what we are accusing Russia of doing to Griner and Whelan, it would probably help our Q-rating among our allies and partners if they didn’t see us behaving in similar fashion.