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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Here Are The Most Notable Prisoner Swaps of Modern Times

Special Reports

Here Are The Most Notable Prisoner Swaps of Modern Times


Citizens of the United States who travel to other countries for various purposes have been vulnerable to arrests at their destinations. This reality involves Americans visiting nations that have a strained relationship with their country such as Iran, the former Soviet Union which is now Russia, and Cuba.

After all, the United States Government’s policies and interests are not usually on the same page as those of other territories. Hence, it is common for the latter’s governments to express their fervent disapproval by putting American visitors in a tight spot.

The number of US citizens who have been unjustly imprisoned abroad has surged. A researcher approximated their quantity rising to a staggering 175 percent over the past ten years.

At the time of writing this article, the United States and Iran are working on an agreement that would result in five American nationals’ release from imprisonment.

CEOWorld Magazine’s researchers created a compilation of some of the well-known prisoner exchanges in modern history. They used different historical and news sources as references.

Readers will understand the plight of innocent American citizens wrongfully captured overseas. The list below is arranged based on the latest prisoner exchange that transpired.

  1. Brittney Griner (United States) for Victor Bout (Russia)
    Brittney Griner is an American basketball player who was captured by Russian customs officers in February 2022. She was accused of trafficking illegal drugs after vape cartridges with hash oil were discovered in her belongings upon her arrival in Russia. After several months, Griner received a prison sentence lasting for nine years. US Government officials asserted that the star of the Women’s National Basketball Association was unreasonably arrested. They condemned the fabricated accusations against Griner.

    Russia and the United States’ governments engaged in patchy negotiations over Griner’s freedom for several months. This event took place during the lowest points in the relationship between the two nations since the Cold War. Then, in December of the same year, Russia approved Griner’s release in exchange for Victor Bout. The latter is a Russian armaments dealer. At that time, Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence in a United States-based jail.

    Mediators helped make the Griner-Bout prisoner swap happen in the United Arab Emirates. The American prisoner was exchanged for the Russian captive on a tarmac in Abu Dhabi. As of 2023, this inmate trade is the latest high-profile case in a lengthy history of prisoner exchanges between the United States and a belligerent foreign country.

  2. Trevor Reed (United States) for Konstantin Yaroshenko (Russia)
    Trevor Reed is a former US Marine and University of North Texas student who visited Russia. He arrived in the country in 2019 on a tourist visa. Police in Moscow arrested Reed while he was drunk after his neighbors grumbled that an intoxicated man was fighting with some women. Based on CEOWorld Magazine researchers’ data, Reed assaulted law enforcement officers in a car while he was being transported to a police station.

    The Russian government charged the former American soldier with attacking a police officer and being violent against a representative of power. Reed was sentenced to a nine-year jail time. The US Government believed the American citizen was held hostage. Reed maintained that he was innocent and the accusations against him were all a sham. Then, in April 2022, he was swapped for Konstantin Yaroshenko. This Russian pilot was proven guilty of smuggling cocaine into the United States.

    At that time, Yaroshenko had been incarcerated in a Connecticut jail, serving a federal prison sentence lasting 20 years. The Reed-Yaroshenko prisoner trade happened one month after Russia invaded Ukraine. It is considered an unusual diplomatic accomplishment during a time of increasing friction between the United States and Russia.

  3. Xiyue Wang (United States) for Masoud Soleimani (Iran)
    Xiyue Wang is a Chinese-American academic who was a graduate student at Princeton University when he was unlawfully detained in Iran. In August 2016, he was doing his research in the Middle Eastern country when its law enforcement authorities accused him of spying. Upon learning of Wang’s detention in Iran, US Government officials denied the accusations. However, the American national was given a 10-year prison time in an Iranian jail.

    Swiss mediators aided in securing Wang’s freedom in trade for Masoud Soleimani. This Iranian scientist was captured in Chicago, Illinois in 2018. Soleimani was accused of trying to illegally export biological items from the United States to Iran. The successful December 2019 prison exchange happened amid the heightening strain between the two countries.

  4. Jason Rezaian and 3 other Americans of Iranian ancestry (United States) for 7 Iranians held on sanctions offenses (Iran)
    Jason Rezaian is an Iranian-American journalist. He worked as a reporter and bureau head for The Washington Post, specifically in this American newspaper’s Tehran office. In 2015, a closed-door hearing took place in Iran, in which Rezaian was found guilty of spy charges or espionage. Nevertheless, in 2016, Iranian authorities freed Rezaian after his 18-month incarceration in the Iranian capital.

    Along with this American news reporter, three other Americans of Iranian lineage were released. This prisoner exchange was a component of the Iranian and United States governments’ negotiations. At that time, the administration of former US President Barack Obama agreed to pardon seven Iranians imprisoned in the United States for sanctions breaches.

    The prisoner swap involving Rezaian, the three other Americans, and the seven Iranians happened against the historical Iran nuclear agreement’s backdrop. It marked an important event in defrosting the frozen relationship between Iran and the United States.

  5. Alan Gross (United States) for 3 Cuban intelligence officers (Cuba)
    Alan Gross is another American citizen in CEOWorld Magazine’s list of US nationals unjustly detained in their destination countries. He worked as a US Government contractor for the United States Agency for International Development. In 2009, Cuban law enforcement authorities arrested Gross. He was accused of collaborating with US intelligence services on a venture to topple the Cuban government.

    Upon learning about Gross’s capture in Cuba, the United States Government considered the accusations against the American citizen as unfounded. It denounced the government contractor’s unwarranted imprisonment. Nonetheless, in 2014, a prison swap transpired with Gross eventually traded for the Cuban Five’s three members. The group includes intelligence officers from Cuba. In 1998, the Cuban Five’s components were detained in Miami, Florida.

    They were accused of conspiring to perpetrate murder, espionage, and other crimes. Gross was freed for humanitarian reasons. He was permitted to come back to the United States aboard a US government plane. The successful trade of Gross and the Cuban Five’s three members was a diplomatic accomplishment, which aided in thawing the decades-long antagonism between the United States and Cuba.

  6. Bowe Bergdahl (United States) for 5 Taliban inmates (Afghanistan)
    Beaudry Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl is an American soldier serving in the US Army. On June 30, 2009, Taliban armed forces arrested him after he was spotted leaving a US military base in Afghanistan. Bergdahl was a US Army sergeant at the time when he was apprehended and he spent five years in captivity. He was swapped for five high-ranking Taliban members in 2014.

    The prisoners exchanged for Bergdahl were jailed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. This American military outpost has a prison for accused illegal fighters the United States arrested in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries during the War on Terror. At least one of the inmates had a direct relationship with terrorist group leader Osama Bin Laden. Bergdahl’s release concluded the longest-ever captivity of a US soldier since the Vietnam War.

    Nevertheless, Bergdahl’s return to the United States underwent increased media inquiry. It was because the events around the former US Army sergeant’s arrest and desertion was controversial. In 2017, Bergdahl pleaded guilty before a military judge at Fort Bragg, North Carolina to misbehavior before the enemy and desertion. From being a US Army sergeant, he was demoted to private after being tried by general court-martial. Bergdahl also had to pay US$10,000 as a fine. He was sentenced to be dishonorably discharged.

  7. 4 US intelligence assets (United States) for 10 Russian sleeper agents (Russia)
    In June 2010, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI captured a group of ten Russian sleeper agents in the United States. This event took place after over ten years of thorough monitoring. Additionally, the apprehension was the biggest espionage assembly since the Cold War. As a spy, a sleeper agent is assigned to a target country or organization.

    He acts as a possible asset upon activation and does not conduct an immediate mission. Moreover, a sleeper agent, also referred to as a deep cover or penetration agent or a mole, may stay inactive for long periods until getting an instruction or signal to complete a particular assignment. Less than one month after the ten Russian sleeper agents’ arrest by the FBI, they went on a flight back to Moscow. This happening was in trade for four US intelligence assets who had been imprisoned in Russian jails.

    Russian Foreign Intelligence Service operative Aleksandr Zaporozhsky was among the four prisoners freed. He worked as a Central Intelligence Agency or CIA agent at that time. Moreover, Zaporozhsky had ascended the ranks via the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or KGB, the main security agency for the Soviet Union, to become one of the highest-ranking American penetration agents in history.

  8. Nicholas Daniloff (United States) for Gennadi Zakharov (Soviet Union)
    On August 31, 1986, Gennadi Zakharov was apprehended in New York City. This Soviet scientist was accused of purchasing classified files that provided details about US Air Force jet engine technology from an FBI informer. Three days after this incident, the KGB captured Nicholas Daniloff in Moscow. The Soviet Government accused this US News and World Report correspondent of getting classified items wrapped in a package. The US Government believed Daniloff’s arrest was the Soviet Union’s revengeful step. Nonetheless, Zakharov and Daniloff were swapped later that same year.
  9. 25 people imprisoned in East Germany and Poland (United States) for 4 Eastern Europeans (Eastern Bloc)
    June 1985 was when the United States traded four Eastern European spies it incarcerated for espionage for 25 prisoners of different citizenships jailed in Poland and East Germany. The latter were of interest to the United States as they had likely been collaborating with the American Government or its allies. CEOWorld Magazine’s researchers discovered that such a prison exchange became the Cold War’s biggest trade. The identities of the prisoners released to America stayed secret. However, a majority of the 25 detainees had German citizenship and were possibly working as CIA intelligence assets. The four Eastern European prisoners the United States freed consisted of Marian Zacharski. This Polish entrepreneur was four years into life imprisonment for conspiring to relay confidential defense information.
  10. Francis Gary Powers (United States) for Rudolf Abel (Soviet Union)
    Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot. He was flying a CIA Lockheed U-2 spy plane which the Soviet Union shot down in 1960. Then, two years later, he was traded and freed by the Soviet Union in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a Soviet KGB colonel. Abel’s real name was William August Fisher and he spied for the Soviet Government. In 1957, he was found guilty of espionage in the United States and had to serve 30-year jail time.

    Powers and Abel’s iconic prisoner exchange is considered among the most famous swaps. It happened in 1962 on the Glienicke Bridge spanning the Havel River that separated East and West Germany during the Cold War. Furthermore, this dramatic prison trade witnessed Powers walking toward the West and Abel going eastward. The 2015 American historical drama movie “Bridge of Spies” by Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg is this historic prisoner exchange’s screenplay adaptation.

CEOWorld Magazine’s article about the ten notable prisoner swaps in contemporary history involves American spies, soldiers, and even civilians. These US citizens went to foreign countries with tense relations with their homeland, only to find themselves held in captivity and unfairly accused by their destination countries’ governments which are antagonistic toward the United States.

These prisoner trades demonstrate that US nationals should be extra careful when going to foreign countries for different purposes. They should heed their government’s advisory about traveling to hostile nations to avert being wrongfully accused and jailed by their host governments. Additionally, the United States has to improve its diplomatic relations with other governments which it has had friction for a long time. In this way, its citizens can avoid suffering being unjustly detained abroad.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Here Are The Most Notable Prisoner Swaps of Modern Times
Sheena Ricarte
News & Features Editor at the CEOWORLD magazine. I'm a veteran digital storyteller with a record of creating best-in-class content and commerce experiences. Specialties: Implementing top-level content strategies. Maintaining high editorial standards in fast-paced environments. Managing external media partnerships and collaborations. Mentoring staff and managing teams of contributors. Promoting diverse and inclusive viewpoints. I am always on the lookout for unique stories that go beyond the grit and grind of everyday headlines.