WASHINGTON – Brittney Griner is by far the most prominent American woman imprisoned 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 was held in Russia since his arrest in December 2018 on espionage allegations that he and the US government believe are false. He was excluded from a prisoner exchange in April that brought home another inmate, Marine veteran Trevor Reed. That has escalated pressure on the Biden administration to avoid another one-for-one swap that doesn’t include Whelan — even as it pushes for the release of Griner, an Olympic gold medalist whose case has garnered worldwide attention.
For Griner and Whelan, the other’s case injects something of a wild card into their own, for better or for worse.
The US government may not agree to a deal that would only release one of them, potentially complicating negotiations. But Whelan could also benefit from the attention being given to Griner, who has put his case in the spotlight. And while the US may be reluctant to give up a high-ranking Russian prisoner in exchange for Griner, who is charged with a relatively minor drug offense, it’s possible they would be more inclined to do so if both she and Whelan were part of a deal.
The possible interaction between the cases does not escape the attention of Whelan and Griner’s families and supporters.
“It’s still very raw,” Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, said of her brother’s being left out of the Reed deal. “And to think that if Brittney gets brought home first that we might have to go through that again, it’s just terrifying.”
But “what’s really bad” about such feelings, she hastily added, is that she and her family are desperate to release Griner, too. “It’s not that we don’t want them at home. We all want out of there, out of Russia and away from this situation.”
It all boils down to a “sticky wicket,” said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student specializing in Russia who is advising the WNBA players’ association on Griner’s case.
If Griner were to skip Whelan on homecoming, the administration would come under scrutiny from Whelan’s supporters. “And when Paul Whelan comes out first, you’re going to have questions as to why Brittney isn’t out if Brittney hasn’t even been convicted,” she said.
US officials have not said whether barter deals that could bring Griner, Whelan, or both home are being discussed, or whether they would accept a deal that would see one released without the other. A spokesman for the State Department’s office, which advocates for wrongfully imprisoned 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 continues to disagree advocates the release of both.
No question that the arrest of Griner in February – Russian authorities detained her at an airport after saying a search of her bag turned up vape cartridges containing cannabis-derived oil – has raised public awareness of dozens of Americans accused, like Reed and Griner, of foreign governments as wrongful be classified as imprisoned.
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. This has raised questions about the role of race and sexual identity in a country where authorities are hostile to the LGBTQ community, and whether her case would receive more attention if it involved a white male athlete.
US officials and Griner’s supporters initially spoke little publicly about her case, but that changed in May the State Department described them as wrongly imprisoned and forwarded her case to the SPEHA office.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, prompted the Biden administration in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” to do whatever it takes to get Griner home, but also expressed empathy for Whelan. She said while there’s no connection between the two other than the fact that they’re both in Russia, “of course I want him back too.”
Griner’s fame goes both ways, St. Julian-Varnon said. If Russia ever wants to re-establish itself as a country hospitable to foreign athletes like Griner, the country would have a significant incentive to release them. But given Griner’s “political value” to Russia, it could also be a big call for her release.
“That’s the biggest chip they have to play,” she said.
Tamryn Spruill, a freelance journalist and author who started a Change.org petition calling for Griner’s release, said in an email that if her “case can be used, I hope the president will do it.” to get Whelan released at the same time – or vice versa use all these avenues.”
Unlike Griner, who is awaiting trial, Whelan was convicted and convicted.
A Michigan corporate security executive arrested after traveling to Russia for a wedding Whelan was found guilty in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He and his family have vigorously maintained their innocence. The US government has denounced the allegations as false.
Reed had also been convicted long before the exchange that set him free. He had been jailed for an alleged 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 on drug trafficking conspiracy. US officials sometimes cited Reed’s ailing health as justification for the trade.
It’s not clear which other Russians, if any, might be part of an additional exchange. Russian state media have for years circulated the name of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, although such a deal risks being seen as a false equation between a Russian whom the US government sees as duly convicted and Americans whom it sees as wrongly imprisoned .
Jonathan Franks, a counsel who worked on the Reed case, said it’s hard to imagine a Griner bout deal or a Griner deal that didn’t involve Whelan.
“I firmly believe that Brittney Griner’s fastest route from Russia is on Air Whelan,” he said.
Elizabeth Whelan said the early-morning phone call she had to make to her aging parents to tell them Reed would be home but her brother wasn’t was not an experience she wanted to repeat. But she said her family understands the possibility that one prisoner could be freed without the other.
“We are faced with a situation where these hostile alien nations may place different values and separate deals on each person they hold. Whichever deal comes first is often the one that comes home first,” she said, “and it’s not a tenable situation at all.”
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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/08/griners-fate-tangled-up-with-other-american-held-in-russia/ Griner’s fate intertwined with other Americans being held in Russia