Image courtesy of Sky Sports

By Jack Cherico 

WNBA player Brittney Griner was brought back to the United States following a prisoner swap with Russia On December 8, 2022. The Biden administration agreed to give up Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence for arms trafficking, in exchange for the basketball star after months of negotiating. 

Griner was arrested on February 17, 2022 for possessing cannabis oil in her luggage after landing in Moscow. Griner, like other WNBA players, played professionally in Russia and other countries during the offseason. On August 4, Griner was sentenced to 9 years in prison, a ruling that many believe does not fit the crime Griner admittedly committed. However, in a period when U.S.-Russian relations are at an all-time low, the Russian government was using the sentence as a political ploy in an effort to get the Biden administration to give up Bout or another asset to the Russian government. 

Some were not satisfied with the Griner return because her return to the U.S. could mean no return for others. In July, the Biden administration was working toward bringing back Griner, as well as former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been illegally imprisoned since 2018 after attending a wedding in Moscow. The Russian government gave Whelan an inflated sentence of 16 years for espionage, but Whelan got far less attention than the basketball player. Only Griner was released under the trade, and Whelan is still in the penal colony he has endured for the past four years. 

“We never forgot about Brittney, we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden stated in the Thursday briefing. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home.” 

“Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian government has not yet been willing to end [Whelan’s] wrongful detention,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “Russia has continued to see Paul’s case through the lens of sham espionage charges, and they are treating him differently than they treated Brittney Griner.”

U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, spoke with Whelan after Griner was returned.

 “Paul, it was one or nothing, we were not going to be able to get you out. We’re going to keep working on it,” Carstens said. 

The news of Griner’s return has divided Americans, with some being happy about Griner’s return and others being angry that a veteran was not able to be returned as well. It is unclear whether Griner will return to the basketball court, but she is currently in good spirits.  She is currently recovering with nutritional and psychological help in San Antonio. 

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