On August 4, 2022, what friends, family, and fans of Brittney Griner feared would happen, did indeed happen.
The WNBA Phoenix Mercury All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist received a sentence of nine-and-a-half years in a Russian penal colony for alleged drug possession and smuggling. She pled guilty in July, after being held in jail in Russia since her arrest in February. Although Griner and her Russian legal representatives insisted she had unknowingly carried the cannabis oil officials found in her luggage, the judge decided she had done so intentionally and handed down the harsh prison sentence, along with a 1 million-ruble fine (about $16,700).
It all went down as expected. While the sentence is harsh even by Russian standards, many weren’t surprised to find that a Black, openly queer American woman, regardless of her fame on the basketball court, received no leniency during a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the United States.
President Joe Biden called the sentence “unacceptable.” His government officially declared Griner wrongfully detained in May, and appears to be working steadily, and increasingly publicly, for her release.
Griner’s Russian defense team said the judge ignored evidence they presented that should have weighed in Griner’s favor. Additionally, the fact of her guilty plea should have led to a more lenient sentence. They have also filed an appeal.
Griner was expressionless as the judge spoke her sentence. As she was led from the courtroom, she simply said, “I love my family.”
A sentence that could be a solution
But diplomatic experts stress that her sentence is the only hope that remains to Griner for returning home. Without it, negotiations with Russia for any potential prisoner swap could not proceed. It was also the only reasonable move strategically: Less than 1 percent of criminal defendants in Russia receive acquittals. And, in the Russian justice system, even an acquittal can later be overturned. The odds that an acquitted Griner could avoid rearrest in the country seemed small.
The Russian government has confirmed its strong interest in a prisoner exchange that would free notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently serving out a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to kill Americans. Russian officials have stated that they are working with their American counterparts behind the scenes to reach an agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly said that his government is prepared to offer a “substantial proposal,” and will “pursue” a prisoner swap.
The most likely exchange involves Griner, ideally together with her fellow imprisoned American Paul Whelan.
Paul Whelan’s ordeal
Whelan, a former Marine and most recently an international advisor on security issues, was arrested in Russia on New Year’s Eve in 2018 on charges of espionage. He has consistently said he traveled to Russia simply to attend a friend’s wedding, and he and his family have strenuously denied the allegation of spying. After a brief, and completely closed-door trial, he was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison. He remains in a harsh Russian labor camp about an eight hours’ drive from Moscow, alongside murderers and thieves.
Whelan has told media that at the very beginning of his detention, the Russians were telling him the plan was to use him in a prisoner swap. He heard two names consistently: Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot imprisoned in the U.S. after a conviction for drug smuggling, and Viktor Bout. In April 2022, a deal with the Americans led to Yaroshenko’s release in exchange for Trevor Reed, another American ex-Marine imprisoned in Russia.
It’s likely, according to many informed observers, that Griner’s severe sentence was also a calculated move by Russia to use her as yet another political pawn to secure Bout’s freedom.
Now, after months of wondering why he wasn’t also freed in exchange for Yaroshenko, Whelan has to be hoping he’ll be released alongside Griner in exchange for Bout.
Russian prisons and penal colonies are grim places. Prisoners often receive harsh, physically and emotionally abusive treatment from guards, and have access to only the most basic food and sanitary conditions. They typically work for long hours at forced labor. In the case of Griner, who speaks no Russian, the social and cultural isolation has been especially demoralizing.
Holiday celebrations in 2022?
By the first part of August, the U.S. had already been waiting weeks for a definitive answer from Russia after laying down Blinken’s “substantial proposal.” On August 11, Russia did publicly confirm its interest in a swap that would give them Bout for Griner and Whelan.
Both prisoners’ loved ones have been working steadily toward their release and are trying to stay positive.
Whelan family members have expressed that they are “cautiously optimistic,” his brother, David, said. But David Whelan also expressed a well-earned skepticism. He is afraid that any deal freeing Griner would again leave Paul Whelan behind, either due to “Russia’s bad faith” or to the chance of “the U.S.’s bad hand.”
Here’s to hoping the U.S. this time has a good hand and plays it well.