Brittney Griner release comes with doubts about swap for ‘merchant of death,’ plight of Paul Whelan

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President Biden and everyday Americans cheered the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison Thursday but the swap for an infamous arms dealer sparked complaints that the White House brokered a lopsided deal that left U.S. businessman and former Marine Paul Whelan behind bars in Moscow.

The prisoner exchange, which unfolded Thursday in the United Arab Emirates, led to a mixed response from the families of detainees who are hoping for the same kind of outcome. 

They were thrilled for Ms. Griner but want to see a comprehensive strategy to release detainees and forceful measures to deter governments from imprisoning Americans on trumped-up or bogus charges.

“There are 60 public cases. That is the tip of the iceberg, we feel, however, because many cases do not dare go public because they’re hoping they can be resolved,” said Diane Foley, who founded the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation after her son was killed in 2014 by the Islamic State in Syria.

“Obviously, we’re delighted for Brittney and her family but heartbroken for Paul Whelan and the other Americans who are unjustly detained or held hostage,” she told The Washington Times. “It’s becoming an increasingly complex problem.”

Mr. Biden said Ms. Griner, a WNBA star for the Phoenix Mercury, was kept in intolerable conditions after her conviction on drug charges. In February, authorities arrested her at a Moscow airport after finding cannabis-derived oil in her luggage.

Ms. Griner’s arrest coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, complicating the negotiations and prompting many to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed Ms. Griner as a diplomatic pawn.

She is also an openly gay Black woman in a country with policies that are hostile to LGBT persons, injecting another level of social intrigue into the situation.

“We never stopped pushing for her release,” Mr. Biden said at the White House alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner. “She is safe, she is on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia.”

Yet Mr. Whelan, another American serving what U.S. officials consider a sham prison sentence, remains in a high-security Russian prison. Moscow says he’s a spy.

The White House defended the prisoner swap as a choice between getting Ms. Griner home or bringing no one home.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Mr. Biden said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

Ric Grenell, who served as acting Director of National Intelligence under President Donald Trump, said that amounted to an admission that Russia set all of the terms.

“Putin dictated the entire deal,” he tweeted. “The US was forced to comply with Putin’s demands. Biden’s weakness is making us less safe.”

The deal gave Russia back a dangerous criminal. 

Bout is a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who was considered one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world.

Dubbed the “merchant of death,” Bout was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and convicted in a U.S. federal court on charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization. He spent 10 years in a federal prison in Illinois before the Griner swap.

Bout has been accused of supplying weapons to South America, the Middle East and Africa, including Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, according to an Associated Press rundown of his exploits.

Prosecutors said he tried to sell surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters, and the Nicholas Cage movie “Lord of War” is largely based on Bout’s life.

Senior administration officials highlighted the contrast between Bout, who was afforded due process in the U.S. courts, and the “sham proceedings” Ms. Griner faced in Russia.

They also characterized the situation as an extreme case in which there were few good options, hoping to forestall critics who believe the swap will entice hostile governments to detain Americans and use them as leverage.

“Any inference that somehow this has become the norm would be mistaken,” an official said.

Some members of Congress said the deal favored Russia, set a poor precedent and could put more Americans in jeopardy.

“[Bout] was convicted of conspiring to kill American law enforcement. This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California tweeted. “Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.”

Mr. Whelan was detained by the Russians in 2018. He was accused of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges that Mr. Whelan and the U.S. government deny.

Mr. Whelan also has British, Canadian and Irish citizenship. He was discharged from the U.S. Marines for bad conduct in 2008 on larceny charges and later worked as a security executive for BorgWarner, an auto parts supplier.

The Whelan family says they do not understand why he has been passed over. Another U.S. citizen and former Marine, Trevor Reed, was released in a swap earlier this year.

Mr. Whelan said Thursday that he was happy for Ms. Griner but wanted the Biden administration to do more for him.

“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. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” Mr. Whelan said in a phone interview with CNN. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

Mr. Whelan said that he was “led to believe that things were moving in the right direction and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.”

Relatives of other detained Americans tempered their praise of Ms. Griner’s release with cries for help. They included the family of Zack Shahin, a former PepsiCo executive serving a lengthy prison sentence in the UAE on fraud charges.

“Now that the president has negotiated with a man he has called ‘a war criminal’ to exchange a convicted arms dealer to secure the rightful release of American Brittney Griner, we are begging him to show the same commitment to working with the United Arab Emirates — a U.S. ally — to secure the release of Zack Shahin, a broken, frail American, before it is too late. Please, Mr. President, help us,” the family said.

The Foley Foundation said negotiations are different in each case and have their own levels of complexity.

“The negotiations are very complicated,” Ms. Foley said. “It doesn’t hurt Brittney is a celebrity both in Russia and the U.S. I’m sure that helped. She had a lot of people helping and rooting for her.”

The swap is a huge relief for Ms. Griner, who was sent to a penal colony after her arrest at a Moscow airport in February and subsequent conviction. The WNBA and others made an intensive lobbying push to get Ms. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, out.

“I know that support meant a lot to Brittney and her family,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden met with Cherelle Griner in the Oval Office and they spoke to Brittney on the phone early Thursday. Ms. Harris joined them, and the White House released photos of the exchange.

Cherelle Griner offered “immense gratitude” to the White House and a long list of people who negotiated her release. She also praised Brittney’s Mercury teammates for their support.

Mr. Biden said Ms. Griner, who will undergo a medical evaluation, will need time and space to recover from her ordeal.

Cherelle Griner said her family would use their high-profile voices to advocate for Americans detained abroad, including Mr. Whelan.

In a statement, Mr. Blinken praised the work of special presidential hostage affairs envoy Roger Carstens, who he said was accompanying Ms. Griner on her flight back to the U.S. He also thanked the UAE for its role in facilitating the swap.

Mr. Blinken said he regretted that Mr. Whelan was not part of the deal, vowing the administration would keep working to free him.

Senior administration officials said they are trying to deter future hostage situations by warning Americans about the risk of wrongful detention in specific nations while deploying tools such as visa bans against governments that engage in wrongful detention.

They defended their efforts to bring American detainees home from West Africa, Burma and other foreign lands, and said some cases are kept quiet on purpose. But they acknowledged that the immediate results of the work can feel “unfair and arbitrary.”

“Negotiations are always difficult,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s my job as president to make hard calls.”

• David R. Sands contributed to this story.

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