How are Political Prisoner Swaps Negotiated?

Big World

Oct 3 2022 • 30 mins

Taking hostages and prisoners is not a new occurrence; people have been taken hostage by those seeking to gain a political upper hand for thousands of years. What is new today is that more US hostages currently are being held by foreign governments than by terrorist or militant groups. Some of the most recent, high-profile political prisoner cases are those of WNBA star and US citizen Brittney Griner and US citizen Paul Whelan. They have both been detained in Russian prisons, and with these wrongful detention cases featured so prominently in the news, many questions have arisen about prisoner swaps and how the process works. In this episode of Big World, our guest is Professor Danielle Gilbert, a Rosenwald fellow at Dartmouth College, Bridging the Gap fellow, and hostage diplomacy expert. Dani Gilbert discusses how the US determines wrongful detentions (2:20) and explains the difference between a hostage and a political prisoner (4:45). She talks about why Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan are being held in Russia and how they may be used as leverage by Russia in a negotiation process (6:05). She also explains how the US decides whom to offer in a prisoner swap and the reasons why some political prisoners get left behind in these deals (8:09). How have past US-Russia and US-Soviet prisoner swaps shaped relations, and do current tensions make a swap more difficult (13:30)? How does outside involvement and media coverage help or hinder prisoner swaps (22:47)? Dani answers these questions and discusses the impact of political prisoner swaps on both the families of the prisoners and the governments that are involved. The episode concludes as Dani shares her thoughts on the likelihood of an agreement between the US and Russia in which Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan are released together (28:13). During our “Take Five” segment, Dani shares the five policies she would enact to protect political prisoners around the world and help expedite the repatriation process (18:46).

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