There may be a breakthrough in the ongoing saga that has kept WNBA star Brittney Griner wrongfully detained in a jail cell in Russia for almost six months and counting, after she was apprehended at Sheremetyevo International Airport for possessing vape cartridges filled with cannabis oil.
Griner, who was hoping to earn extra money playing for Russia’s basketball league, was forced to plead guilty to the drug charges levied against her at a hearing in a Russian court earlier this month—a risky move that experts predicted could fast-track her release. And it appears the gamble may have paid off, as it’s being reported that President Joe Biden is trying to bring both Griner and another American citizen, former U.S. marine Paul Whelan (who’s been jailed in Russia since 2018 after receiving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage) home in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, addressing the ongoing negotiations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the U.S. has made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to ensure the release of Griner and Whelan. “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution.”
Blinken didn’t go into details about the proposed exchange of prisoners, but did share his plans to have a conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as soon as possible to discuss the particulars of the proposal, with the goal of finalizing the deal that would bring the two detained Americans back home. While remaining optimistic about his chances to successfully secure the release of Griner and Whelan, Blinken remained cautious about the expected outcome. “My hope would be in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” he said.
Due to the increasing amount of national attention that Griner’s case has been garnering, family members of Paul Whelan were compelled to speak out on behalf of their forgotten love one. Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, released a statement to CNN that reads in part: “Why are the Whelans not getting a call? Why is Paul not going to have a letter written by the President? (Paul’s) made plenty of statements to the President. I’m really angry. I’m really angry.”
As for Viktor Bout, the Russian convicted arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the States, it’s been rumored that The Kremlin intended to work with the Biden administration to figure out an agreement that would secure Bout’s freedom, after his 2008 arrest and 2011 conviction for scheming to sell weapons to buyers who planned to use them to harm Americans.
At the time, U.S. officials didn’t confirm the potential deal, with Ned Price from the U.S. State Department warning that “using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working and living abroad.” In his response, a U.S. based lawyer for Bout said, “My sense of this is that no American is going home unless Viktor Bout is sent home with them.”
That’s exactly what might play out in the coming weeks, if by any luck both Griner and Whelan are blessed with the same outcome that allowed for the release of former U.S. marine Trevor Reed back in April. Biden agreed to swap Reed, who had been held in a Russian jail since 2019 after being charged with beating up two police officers, in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot who was sentenced 20 years in prison in 2011 for charges of drug smuggling.
A senior Biden administration official told CNN, “Whatever the kind of moral indignity of them holding innocent people and trying to extract from us someone like a Mr. Yaroshenko, who is the opposite of that, we nonetheless are so committed to bring our people home that we will make those painful choices in certain circumstances.”
As for Griner, she recently testified at her July 26 hearing, telling the courtroom that at the time of her arrest, her rights were not explained to her and she found the process confusing and unsafe. There’s no indication how long the trial will go on for, but her detention was extended until Dec. 20.
Hopefully Griner will not have to wait that long to come home.