Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian prison after 10 months, as the United States secured a trade that will send long-held prisoner and arms dealer Viktor Bout back to Russia.
As news of the prisoner swap trickled out, people took to the media and social media to express celebration, as well as — yes, you’re reading this right — seeming disappointment in her release.
There seemed to be three distinct reactions:
1) BG is free!
2) Ugh, what a lopsided trade.
3) What about Paul Whelan?
Depending on the news source or the Tweeter, much of the reaction seemed to be siloed, with few people addressing all three of these things, focusing on one and not the others.
Yet all three of these things can be true at the same time.
1) It is an incredible source of joy to see Brittney Griner released
Griner has been an American unjustly held in prison by Russia. There is no debating this. For Americans, having a vape cartridge should not lead to months of imprisonment, let alone a nine-year sentence.
Yet some have (gulp) defended her imprisonment: “Well, she broke the law and we can’t tell Russia what their laws are.” both true. Except, does that mean gay people in some Muslim countries around the world deserve to be stoned to death because they broke local law? Of course not.
We can and should push other countries for more-tolerant policies, even as we push for them within our own borders.
Nine years in a penal colony was and is an absurd response to what Griner did.
Whenever someone is free who was unjustly held, it should be a source of celebration for everyone. An American woman is coming home for the holidays.
2) Trading the “Merchant of Death” for a celebrity athlete doesn’t seem like a ‘fair trade’
Viktor Bout is an awful human being who is responsible for the deaths of countless people. He is an arms dealer arrested in 2008 with the cooperation of the Thai government, Interpol and the United States — the vast majority of the world sees this guy as a threat. His operation was so deadly he was nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.”
Griner plays basketball.
When beginning negotiations to get Griner home, the United States wanted two prisoners — her and Marine Paul Whelan — for Bout.
The United States got half of the deal it wanted in the trade. This is fact.
Yet if my husband were the one wrongfully detained, you can bet I wouldn’t care whom the United States traded away to free him. The deep personal pain her friends and family have felt, not to mention Griner’s anguish looking down the barrel of a nine-year sentence, is unfathomable.
Yes, the trade was lopsided.
And if it were your spouse you’d make that trade in a heartbeat.
3) Paul Whelan has been detained since 2018, and he should be released as well
Whelan is a Marine who has been accused of espionage by the Russian government and who was first detained in 2018. While Griner is headed home, Whelan is not.
Whelan told CNN on Thursday that he is “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release.”
The really tough part of this is that, without the attention brought to the matter by Griner’s celebrity status, attention to Whelan’s plight will diminish. Looking at Google Trends, searches for Whelan increased — sometimes dramatically — as Griner’s detention was announced, and as she made headlines.
Will people across sports — most notably the WNBA, its players and fans — continue to push publicly for Whelan’s release?
In its statement about the release of Griner, the WNBA did mention Whelan:
The following statement was released in regards to Brittney Griner's return home: pic.twitter.com/p0D0nhaNDW— WNBA (@WNBA) December 8, 2022
Hopefully that continues and Whelan is home with his family, where he belongs.
As we dissect the return of Griner to the United States, it’s important to remember that an American is coming home. As Paul’s brother David Whelan said: “It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom.”
When she takes the floor with the Phoenix Mercury for her first WNBA game in 2023, it will be an incredible, emotional moment for everyone, a celebration of her freedom.
It’s also up to all of us who pushed for Griner’s release to continue pressure on the White House to bring Paul Whelan — and other political prisoners — home.