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Journalist once detained by Iran reacts to WNBA star Brittney Griner's release

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After being held for almost 10 months in Russia, Brittney Griner is on a plane on her way back to her loved ones. President Biden announced the WNBA star's release this morning. Griner was arrested at a Russian airport back in February on minor drug charges. She was sentenced to nine years in prison and had recently been moved to a penal colony. To secure her release, the U.S. swapped a notorious Russian arms dealer. He's now been returned to Russia. No one can get inside Brittney Griner's head right now or know exactly what she's been through, but Jason Rezaian comes close. The Washington Post reporter was detained in an Iranian prison for 544 days. He was released in 2016, also in a prisoner exchange. Jason Rezaian joins me now. Hey, Jason.

JASON REZAIAN: Hey, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing well. Thanks for joining us.

REZAIAN: Of course.

MARTIN: It's a small club of people who have been in this situation. You are one of them. I wonder if you could just explain what it was like for you in this moment that Brittney Griner is now, when you were on the plane heading back to your loved ones?

REZAIAN: Well, I'll tell you, those 544 days were incredibly trying, but it was the last 36 hours or so that were the most gut-wrenching because, you know, you're not sure if it's actually all going to come together. You've been trained to believe that the worst is going to happen to you. And so, you know, the feeling of release and relief of sitting down on the plane and leaving Iranian airspace is something that I will never forget. It's been almost seven years, but it's a memory that I can recall very easily.

MARTIN: Yeah. So the U.S. and Russia are obviously in this standoff now about the war in Ukraine. When you were being held, the U.S. and Iran were locked in these very tense negotiations over the Iranian nuclear deal. What was it like to understand that your personal fate was likely connected to things that had nothing to do with you?

REZAIAN: I mean, it took me a while to come to that understanding. Once I did, you feel like you're just a tiny insect in a massive hurricane that can become collateral damage very easily. But I also understood that because the U.S. and Iran were in the midst of these long-term negotiations that were historic in so many ways, that it was a great opportunity that this might be the thing that got me out. In Brittney Griner's case, it's a much more difficult situation because the U.S. and Russia are at odds over the war in Ukraine, which is so heartbreaking for me because, you know, how Paul Whelan is still there in Russia, still in a penal colony and may not get out.

MARTIN: Again, every hostage situation is different. Every detainee situation is different. Every family different. But can you give us a sense of what it's going to take for Griner and her family to move through the next few days?

REZAIAN: Well, I would hope that they give themselves a lot of space. There's going to be so many demands, so many requests for interview and time. What I like to tell the families of people coming home is that they don't owe that to anybody, not in the short term and not ever. It's a choice that she gets to make, and I hope she's given the space to make that choice.

MARTIN: Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian. Thanks, Jason. I appreciate you talking with us this morning.

REZAIAN: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.