Where Trevor Reed Fits Into the History of Prisoner Swaps

TTrevor Reed’s family could let out a collective sigh on Wednesday as the ex-Marine was taken into custody by the United States. He had been held in Russia for nearly a year. In exchange for Reed’s return, the U.S. sent back Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted of drug-smuggling in 2011, from a Connecticut prison. After an altercation between Russian police officers and Reed, Reed was sentenced in 2020 to nine years imprisonment. American officials also cited Reed’s declining health as the reason for the exchange.

Reed thus joins the long list of American prisoner swaps. TIME interviewed Paul J. Springer. America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror See the history of Reed-Yaroshenko to understand how it fits with this.

TIME: What does a prisoner exchange look like?

SPRINGER – A prisoner swap is, in military terms, the exchange of troops between the two parties that have been involved in conflict. Normaly, a prisoner exchange is done rank-for-rank. You could give me two colonels while I give you two.

What was the earliest American history prisoner swaps date?

They are a common aspect of European-style warfare and they can be found in American history even before the Revolutionary War. There were also swaps of prisoner of war during wartime, and at the end. Practically all peace agreements will include provisions for returning enemy prisoners.

Where did the laws today governing prisoner swaps come from?

The standardized, “here’s how we’re going to do it” system emerged during the Thirty Years War in Europe, which was 1618 to 1648. Hugo Grotius (a Dutch jurist) was the author of two books about laws of war or peace. He had also been a prisoner. He spent a bunch of time in his works essentially codifying what he saw as the laws of civilized war, and it included the idea that you couldn’t enslave enemy captives, that they were not the possession of whoever captured them. You couldn’t kill them out of hand, you had to keep them alive, and at the end of the conflict, you had to give them back to whatever nation they served. So he’s writing that in the 1630s and 1640s. It becomes the norm in Europe around 1660-1670.

In the late 19th century, there’s a follow-on push to kind of regularize war during the American Civil War. A lot of people are pretty horrified by what they’re seeing, especially European observers. The International Committee of the Red Cross forms in Geneva in 1864, and they’re going to propagate kind of a common understanding of some of the limits of war.

Learn more How the Meaning of ‘War Crimes’ has Changed

In 1929, after World War I, most of the major powers of the world get together at Geneva again, to kind of say, “Alright, we just fought World War I and it was awful. And let’s think about how we can make war less awful because war is bad.” The 1920s have a lot of optimism about preventing future conflicts. At Geneva they say, “All right, in the event of conflicts, here’s some limits.” You can’t deliberately target civilians, for example; you have to give prisoners of war shelter, medical care, and adequate food. Basically the way they phrase it is essentially, you’ve got to maintain them at the same level of health that they were at when they were captured. In 1949, after World War II, there’s going to be another revision of Geneva. So once again, they’re basically going to sit down and say, “All right, well, World War II was awful, what was wrong with the 1929 rules? And how do we need to change them?” And so in 1949, we get some provisions in terms of, particularly, the custody and care of prisoners.

Is there a general trend you have observed regarding when and why prisoners swap?

These prisoners have been less common during conflicts. More prisoners are being held to the end of fighting. There are often wartime swaps of sick and wounded prisoners, where there’s no possibility they’re going to go back into conflict. So you know, maybe you’d have an individual who’s lost a limb, for example, or who’s on the verge of death from tuberculosis, then you’re pretty likely to get a humanitarian swap. During the Korean War, for example…there was an exchange of wounded and sick prisoners. This was done for humanitarian purposes. Many of the prisoners were expected to die soon after swapping. [get to] die at home rather than die in a prison camp.

Do you know of any landmark prisoner swaps in recent history?

Sergeant Bowebergdahl was reported missing by his Afghan unit. He ended up being exchanged for five Guantanamo bay prisoners. Qatar was the third-party government that facilitated this deal. They were the intermediaries in this deal. [in 2014]Bergdahl was freed. Guantanamo’s five prisoner were transferred to Qatar. Qatar was willing to hold them there for a while before finally releasing them. The swap was controversial. It was partially unique because he wasn’t captured by an enemy nation; he was captured by the Haqqani Network, which is classified as a terror organization and you know, we’ve all seen the Hollywood movies say, “Oh, we don’t [America doesn’t] negotiate with terrorists.” But actually we do sometimes when we need to. The incident was unique in that there were many questions about whether Bowe Bergdahl had been taken or had he voluntarily surrendered to his enemy.

Where does Trevor Reed’s prisoner swap make sense in terms of the history and evolution of prison swaps.

[Reed and Yaroshenko]These are called civil prisoners. They’re not prisoners of war. These types of swaps have a different history. If what we have is somebody that the Russians accused of a crime and incarcerated, and in the United States, there’s a Russian accused of a crime and incarcerated, oftentimes, countries will throw the old diplomatic levers of power into play, and try to work out a prisoner swap.

For example, we’ve had a lot of espionage exchanges, where “I catch some of your spies, you catch some of my spies. Officially, I can execute your spies for espionage and you can execute mine, but we’ll agree to quietly make an exchange.”

ItFrancis Gary Powers is a milestone in that history. He was the U-2 pilot who was shot down during a surveillance flight above the Soviet Union in 1960. The Soviets then captured him. He’s got a cyanide pill in his uniform, but he doesn’t take it. In order to escape capture, he was meant to take his own life. He was supposed to kill himself to avoid capture. In this case we end up quietly making an exchange to send one of their spy agents back from the United States to the Soviets. Tom Hanks made the movie “The Exchange”. Bridge of Spies, and it’s all about the meeting on the bridge to do the physical hand-off of the two prisoners.

Learn more How Bridge of SpiesThe Past can be shaped by the present

There was a case back in the ’90s, where an American teenager got caught vandalizing cars in Singapore, and the State Department did everything in their power to try to get this kid released because the Singaporean punishment was that he was going to be caned. The State Department actually hit the boy multiple times, before finally releasing him and banning his entry to the United States.

You can see a lot of examples of Americans that are sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia, and so you’ll often get the State Department quietly trying to save these people from being executed by the Saudi government and making whatever concessions they need to.

They have been literally hundreds in number [civilian prisoner swaps]. They’re kind of a constant. You just don’t hear much about them usually, unless it’s somebody really famous or their family makes a lot of noise. You often see these kinds of quiet swaps, and sometimes it’s not adversarial. These negotiations are more common than many people realize.

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