Brittney Griner: Home at Last

Britney+Griner

CNN

Britney Griner

Alicia Kilian, Staff Writer

“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”

Joe Biden, President of the United States, sent out this message on Twitter in regard to Brittney Griner’s return to the United States. 

Back in February, Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star, was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport, near Moscow, due to accusations of drug possession. She was detained after officials found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her suitcase, a crime considered illegal in Russia. While she said she had no intention of breaking the law, she pleaded guilty on July 2, 2022, and was sentenced to 9 ½ years in prison, close to the maximum sentence of 10 years. In November, Griner was moved to a Russian Penal Colony, a prison facility known for its brutality and strictness. On December 8th, she was brought back to the United States 294 days after her initial detainment through a prisoner swap.

While a joyous moment for Griner’s loved ones, this swap has caused controversy for more than one reason.

In order to initiate a prisoner swap, both the United States and Russia have to agree to bring one of each other’s prisoners back to their home country. Russia agreed to give back Griner, and the U.S. agreed to give back former Soviet military translator Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death.” An international arms dealer, Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges along with his involvement in fueling civil wars around the world. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Bout was not supposed to be released until August of 2029.

It is easy to see why people see this as an unfair tradeoff; why would we trade a world-renown arm dealer convicted of conspiring to kill American citizens for a basketball player? Unfortunately, the answer is not plainly black and white. Recently, a U.S. Senior Administration Official said, “This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American – Brittney Griner – or bringing home none.” While this has caused outrage on different social media platforms, it has also brought attention to another detainment case in Russia-that of Paul Whelan.

Convicted in 2020 on charges of being a spy, Whelan was given a sentence of 16 years and has been in Russia for 4 years since his original arrest in 2018. He is disheartened that there has not been an effort made to get him home. Although he is happy that Griner is leaving Russia safely, he told CNN, “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up.” While the U.S. had tried to swap back both Whelan and Griner, Russian officials were adamant on the matter. 

Now that Griner is back, she is preparing to try and help others that were in her situation. Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, reports to CNN that, “She’s already talking about the position that she’s now in to help other people come home.”