US Marine veteran Trevor Reed is on his way home after being released from Russia, where officials said he was wrongfully detained since 2019.
Reed’s release came as part of a prisoner swap with Russia, with the US sending back Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot sentenced in 2011 to a 20-year prison term for importing more than $100 million of cocaine.
The surprise prisoner exchange was the result of long and difficult negotiations between the US and Russia, according to both countries. The fraught diplomacy was made all the more extraordinary because of the utter collapse of relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
President Joe Biden, who met with the Reed family last month, said in a statement on Wednesday that the negotiations to release him “required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly.”
“I heard in the voices of Trevor’s parents how much they’ve worried about his health and missed his presence,” Biden said. “And I was delighted to be able to share with them the good news about Trevor’s freedom.”
Reed, 30, was imprisoned for allegedly assaulting a police officer while he was drunk, but his family and US diplomats said he was innocent, describing the evidence against him at trial as “preposterous” and “absurd.” Instead, they said he was being held as a bargaining chip.
In recent weeks, Reed’s health had deteriorated and he had been hospitalized with signs of tuberculosis and a possible broken rib, according to the State Department, making his release all the more urgent.
Reed’s family said Biden’s decision to go ahead with the prisoner swap may have saved the former Marine’s life. They had previously expressed fears that Reed might suffer the same fate as Otto Warmbier, the American student held for 17 months in North Korea who went into a coma after his 2017 release and died.
The State Department has previously declined to identify exactly how many Americans have been detained in Russia, but there are at least two high-profile prisoners who remain behind bars there: Paul Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Whelan, another former Marine, has been detained the longest, having been first arrested at the end of 2018, and accused of being an American spy. His family has denied this, but he was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department official now acting as a pro bono attorney for the Whelan family, said they had "complex feelings" about Wednesday's news.
"They wish the family the very best, but they also view this as a missed opportunity," Fayhee said, pointing to the different crimes the two swapped prisoners were convicted of. "It was a pretty high price to pay. If you make a comparison between the two people who've gone home today, to not include Paul in that is a missed opportunity."
Fayhee called on Biden to meet with the Whelans like he did with the Reeds, and consider alternative options than prisoner exchanges in order to free him.
Griner, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist and a member of the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team, was detained in February at an airport outside Moscow where officials said they found cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage. If convicted, she could face 10 years in prison.
US consular officials were not allowed to visit her for weeks, but that finally changed on March 23. “We are in frequent contact with her legal team, with her broader network, and we have no higher priority than the safety and security of Americans, including those who are incarcerated in Russia,” State spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on April 12.
Griner had been in Russia playing for the UMMC Ekaterinburg team during the WNBA’s off-season — a situation that her sports agent, Lindsay Kogawa Colas, said was made necessary due to the double standards and limited financial opportunities for women athletes in the US.
“So while her detention has risen to the top of news for its geopolitical relevance, supercharged by celebrity, at its underbelly lies a story of gender-pay disparity here in the United States,” Kogawa Colas wrote in a piece for the Los Angeles Times published on Tuesday.
Griner's wife, Cherelle, has asked for privacy as the family works to bring her home, with those close to her fearful that she will be used as a political pawn.
While Kogawa Colas said there was a small “community” of activists working every day to secure Griner’s release, she acknowledged the need to move delicately in describing the circumstances of her detention.
“It’s a community that chooses its words carefully, that’s used to moving together as a unit,” Kogawa Colas said. “For now, that community is doing its best to trust in BG’s legal team and have confidence in the White House’s commitment to doing everything in their power to bring Brittney home.”
In their statement on Wednesday celebrating Reed’s release, his family also noted the other Americans who are being held in Russia.
“We stand proudly with the Whelan family and all the other families of wrongfully detained Americans who are still waiting for their own release moment,” the Reed family said. “We will continue to advocate for the rapid release of hostages and detainees using all tools available to the United States government.”
Biden said that his administration remains committed to “bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad.”
“We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends,” he said.