Brittney Griner, the WNBA player who had been detained in Russia for nearly 10 months, took the stage at the 54th NAACP Image Awards Sunday alongside her wife, Cherelle Griner, to thunderous applause.
The occasion marked one of Griner’s first public appearances since she was released in December after being held in Russia on charges of carrying vape cartridges with small amounts of cannabis oil.
She used the moment to advocate for the return of other U.S. citizens that remain in the same position she was in only weeks ago.
“Let’s keep fighting to bring home every American still detained overseas,” she said.
Prior to Griner’s return to the U.S., activists called for Russian officials to release Paul Whelan, 53, a former marine who has been detained in the country for four years.
There had been much speculation about the two being brought back together in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer that had been held in the U.S.
When that didn’t happen, Whelan, who is a U.S citizen, said he was “greatly disappointed,” in an interview with CNN. He is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence and has been accused of spying.
Speaking to members of the media from inside the White House, President Joe Biden said, “This was not a choice of which American to bring home.
“While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up,” he said as he stood next to Griner’s wife, announcing the basketball player’s release.
Still, activists pressed Biden to bring the former marine home to the U.S.
“It is heartbreaking that Paul Whelan is not also on that flight home with Brittney,” Diane Foley, president of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, an organization that advocates for the release of U.S. citizens and residents detained abroad, said in a news release.
“Even as we celebrate Brittney’s return, our hearts are with Paul, the Whelan family and the families of all who are still being held overseas.”
Based on the foundation’s most recent data, at least 60 U.S. nationals and lawful permanent residents have been detained in approximately 19 countries, including Rwanda, Syria, Turkey, China and Cuba, with some having remained in correctional facilities for over 10 years.
Those detainees include Whelan, Paul Rusesabagina and Theary Seng.
Rusesabagina’s case is especially notable because of its dramatization. The critically acclaimed 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda” depicts his efforts to protect over 1,200 Tutsi guests during the country’s 1994 genocide when he worked as the manager of Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali.
He’s been detained in Rwanda since 2020 after the country’s government abducted him in Dubai. He holds Belgian citizenship and is a U.S. permanent legal resident.
A year ago, Rusesabagina’s daughter, Anaïse Kanimba, asked Biden to secure her father’s release.
Rusesabagina, 67, is serving a 25-year sentence and has reportedly become very ill, Kanimba said during a live panel in April presented by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation.
Sources familiar with Rusesabagina’s condition say he is still not doing well.
“Please help me,” Kanimba told Axios in a 2022 interview, her words aimed at Biden. “Help me because you understand my losses, and I don’t want to lose another father again.”
Kanimba and her sister are Rusesabagina’s adopted daughters. Their birth parents died in the Rwandan genocide and the pair were found by Rusesabagina in a refugee camp.
Seng, 52, a Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights activist, was convicted of conspiracy to commit treason against the Cambodian government last June.
She was arrested along with dozens of other activists and sentenced to six years in prison for expressing opposition against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
She had been linked to trying to get Sam Rainsy, the country’s opposition leader, to return from exile. Rainsy has been a vocal critic of the Cambodian government and faces multiple prison sentences over allegations of corruption and even treason were he to return to the country.
After the announcement of Seng’s sentencing, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, said he was “deeply troubled” by a court’s decision following her trial.
“Freedom of expression and association, and tolerance of dissenting views are vital components of democracy,” he wrote on Twitter.
“We call on Cambodian authorities to release her and other human rights activists from unjust imprisonment.”