Brittney Griner’s fate tangled up with other Americans held in Russia

Britney Griner is easily the most high-profile American locked up by a foreign country. But the WNBA star’s case is intertwined with that of a lesser-known American also imprisoned in Russia.

Paul Whelan has been detained in Russia since his arrest in December 2018 on espionage charges he and the US government say are false. It was excluded from a prisoner exchange in April who brought home another inmate, Navy veteran Trevor Reed. It has intensified pressure on the Biden administration to avoid another one-for-one swap that doesn’t include Whelan – even as it presses for the release of Griner, an Olympic gold medalist whose case has drawn controversy. global attention.

For Griner and Whelan, the other’s case injects something of a wild card into theirs, for better or for worse.

The US government may not accept an agreement in which only one of them is published, potentially complicating negotiations. But Whelan could also benefit from the attention given to Griner, who has shone the spotlight on his case. And while the United States may be reluctant to give up a high-profile Russian prisoner in exchange for Griner, who is charged with a relatively minor drug offense, it may be more willing to do so if she and Whelan were part of a deal.

The potential interaction between the cases is not lost on the families and supporters of Whelan and Griner.

“It’s still very raw,” Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, said of her brother being left out of the Reed deal. “And to think that we might have to go through that again if Brittney is brought home first is just terrible.”

But “what’s really bad” about that sentiment, she was quick to add, is that she and her family desperately want Griner released as well. “It’s not like we don’t want her to come home,” she said. “We want everyone out of there, out of Russia and away from this situation.”

It all adds up to a “sticky wicket,” said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in Russia and is advising the WNBA players’ association on Griner’s case.

If Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, were to edge Whelan home, the administration will face intense scrutiny from Whelan supporters. “And if Paul Whelan comes out first, you’re going to wonder why Brittney hasn’t come out when Brittney hasn’t even been convicted yet,” she said.

U.S. officials have not said whether trades are being discussed that could bring Griner, Whelan or both home or whether they would agree to a deal that results in the release of one without the other. A spokesperson for the State Department office that defends wrongfully detained Americans, the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, or SPEHA, declined to say how the cases might affect each other, but said in a statement that the office remained committed to securing the release of both.


PHOENIX, ARIZONA – MAY 06: A young fan holds a sign honoring Brittney Griner during the game between the Phoenix Mercury and the Las Vegas Aces at Footprint Center on May 06, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was d (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

There is no question that Griner’s arrest in February – Russian authorities detained her at an airport after she said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis-derived oil – raised awareness of the dozens of Americans who, like Reed and grinning, are classified as wrongfully detained by foreign governments.

The seven-time WNBA All-Star is not only one of the most dominant figures in her sport, but also a prominent gay black woman. It sparked questions about the role race and gender identity play in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community, and whether his case would receive more attention if it involved a white male athlete.

U.S. officials and Griner supporters initially said little publicly about her case, but that changed in May when the State Department designated her as wrongfully detained and transferred her case to the SPEHA office.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle, urged the Biden administration in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​to do whatever it takes to bring Griner home, but also expressed empathy for Whelan. She said that while there was no connection between the two other than the fact that they were both in Russia, “obviously I want him back too.”

Griner’s fame goes both ways, St. Julian-Varnon said. If Russia ever wants to reestablish itself as a welcoming country for foreign athletes like Griner, the country would have a significant incentive to release her. But given Griner’s “political value” to Russia, it could also make a huge demand for his release.

“That’s the biggest chip they have to play,” she said.

Tamryn Spruill, a freelance journalist and author who started a petition demanding Griner’s freedom, said in an email that if her “case can be exploited to simultaneously secure Whelan’s release – or vice versa – then j hope the president will exploit all of these avenues.”

Unlike Griner, who is awaiting trial, Whelan was convicted and sentenced.

A Michigan corporate security official who was arrested after traveling to Russia for a wedding, Whelan was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false.

Reed had also been convicted long before the trade that freed him. He had been jailed for what Russian authorities say was a drunken physical encounter with police in Moscow and was released in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was serving a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking conspiracy. U.S. officials cited Reed’s poor health in part as justification for the trade.

It is unclear which other Russians, if any, could be part of additional exchanges. Russian state media has for years tossed around the name of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, though such a deal risks being seen as a false equivalence between a Russian whom the U.S. government considers duly convicted and Americans he considers unjustly detained.

Jonathan Franks, a consultant who worked on the Reed case, said it was difficult to envision a Griner-Bout deal or a Griner deal that didn’t involve Whelan.

“I truly believe Brittney Griner’s fastest route out of Russia is on Air Whelan,” he said.

Elizabeth Whelan said the morning call she had to make to her aging parents to tell them Reed was coming home, but her brother wasn’t there, is not an experience she wants to repeat . But she said her family understood the possibility that one prisoner could be released without the other.

“We are faced with a situation where these hostile foreign nations can assign different values ​​to each person they hold and can enter into separate agreements. not at all a tenable situation.”


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