Brittney Griner may have been the highest-profile American whose detention abroad was deemed wrongful by the U.S. State Department, but she was hardly the only one: The number of American citizens unjustly or wrongfully detained by foreign governments has risen sharply in recent decades, researchers have found.
The State Department has not released an official tally of how many Americans are being unjustly held by state actors. But researchers working for the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of both hostages and wrongful detainees and their families, have found that the number of Americans being unjustly held by foreign governments has been rising.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve seen a 175 percent increase in incidents of Americans being wrongfully detained,” Cynthia T. Loertscher, the director of research, hostage advocacy, and government affairs for the Foley Foundation, said in an interview.
A State Department spokesman did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In July, a senior State Department official said that there were between 40 and 50 Americans being wrongfully detained by foreign governments.
The foundation, which was named for named for a James Foley, journalist who was killed in Syria by the Islamic State in 2014, issued a report in September which found that wrongful detentions have been rising.
Among its findings:
More Americans are being held wrongfully. An average of 34 U.S. nationals were wrongfully held by foreign governments each year between 2012 and 2022, the report found, which is a 580 percent increase from the prior decade when an average of five U.S. nationals were held each year.
More countries are unjustly holding Americans. At the beginning of the century only four countries were wrongfully detaining U.S. nationals, the report found, while in 2022 “at least 19 countries had either wrongfully detained or continued to hold a U.S. national in captivity.”
There are concerns that Americans are being targeted to secure political leverage against the United States. The report found that detentions in Iran, China, Venezuela, Syria, and Russia account for three-quarters of U.S. nationals currently wrongfully detained.
President Biden addressed the subject Thursday morning as he discussed the release of Ms. Griner.
“I don’t want any American to sit wrongfully detained one extra day if we can bring that person home,” he said at the White House. “My administration has now brought home dozens of Americans who were wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad, many of whom had been held since before I took office. And today we also remember the other Americans that are being held hostage and wrongfully detained in Russia or anywhere else in the world. Reuniting these Americans with their loved ones remains a priority — a priority for my administration and every person in my administration involved in this.”
Diane Foley, the founder and president of the Foley foundation, praised the Biden administration’s efforts to free Ms. Griner. She urged the administration to continue to press Russia for the release of Paul Whelan, an American who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges that the U.S. government has said were manufactured, saying in a statement that it was “heartbreaking that Paul Whelan is not also on that flight home with Brittney.”
At the White House, Mr. Biden said that “we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years.”
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” he said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”