Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic prisoner exchange, as the U.S. released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden but carried a heavy price.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials. You can watch Biden’s full speech in the video player above.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home

Russian and U.S. officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.

Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. His full statement can be found below:

“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays. There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.

This time, US government officials let us know in advance that Paul would be left behind (12/7/2022), unlike last April when they left him. That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul. I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media. Our parents have had calls with him every day since his return to IK-17 on Dec. 2n, and they will surely speak to him soon.

After learning of this outcome, I went back to the post I sent out when Trevor Reed was released. It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom. As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other. The sentiments I shared in April about Trevor are unchanged: this is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage.

But how many more times do I need to write that?

At some level, our family has steeled ourselves for this likelihood. And I think, as the use of wrongful detentions and hostage diplomacy continues around the globe, it’s clear the US government needs to be more assertive. If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance. In Russia’s case, this may mean taking more law-breaking, Kremlin-connected Russians into custody. It’s not like there aren’t plenty around the world.

Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated. I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly four years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the US government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He’d been worrying about where he’d live when he got back to the US.

And now what? How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison? I can’t imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point. It’s clear that the US government has no concession that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.

It will be the fourth Christmas Mum and Dad live through without Paul. They will be 85 and 93 on the fourth anniversary of his detention (12/28/2022). This is Paul’s and our, enemy. The likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues. Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won’t survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony. He has tried to stay healthy but one wonders how long that determination to keep going can endure.

Thank you for continuing to follow Paul’s case.

David Whelan, Paul’s twin brother

David Whelan also included a link to a GoFundMe for Paul in his statement, which can be found by CLICKING HERE.

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Thursday, the WNBA issued a statement regarding Griner and her release:

“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends. BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity. The WNBA is grateful beyond measure to the Biden Administration, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, and all those who played a role in bringing BG home today. Our hope is that Paul Whelan and every wrongfully detained American will be returned home safely and as soon as possible.”

WNBA

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.

Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the U.S. government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.

Besides the efforts of U.S. officials, the release also followed months of back channel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.

Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the U.S. in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.

Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The U.S. government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.