Brittney Griner and her family have ratcheted up the pressure on the U.S. government to free her from wrongful detention in Russia. And though the WNBA star has pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court, the early results are encouraging. President Biden has responded. A deal with Russia to bring Griner home—which includes a potential “prisoner swap” between the two countries—remains in play.
Griner’s guilty plea in Russian court on Thursday, which TIME confirmed through a Griner representative, caps off a week a busy week for her case. She has been held since February and could face 10 years in prison after cannabis vape cartridges were found in her luggage in a Moscow airport. “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor,” Griner reportedly told the court through an interpreter. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said.
According to reports, Griner told the court that she packed in haste, and carried the substances unintentionally. Griner’s next court hearing is scheduled for July 14.
On July 4th, a handwritten letter from Griner, who has won a WNBA title, defensive player of the year award twice, and two Olympic gold medals, was delivered to the White House.
Read More: Brittney Griner’s Fight for Freedom
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote. “On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
After receiving the letter, and following an interview in which Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told CBS’s This Morning it was “very disheartening” that she had not heard from Biden, the President and Vice President Kamala Harris called Cherelle Griner on Wednesday. According to a readout of the call released by the White House, Biden reassured Cherelle that “he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible.” Biden also said that he’s working to secure the release of Paul Whelan, the American former security executive who’s been convicted of espionage in Russia and held since December 2018, “and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia or around the world.” (Whelan has strongly denied the charges).
Biden read Cherelle Griner a draft of a letter he’s sending to Brittney. He also directed his national security team “to remain in regular contact with Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and with other families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.”
In a statement following the call, Cherelle Griner expressed her gratitude to the President and Vice President. “While I will remain concerned and outspoken until she is back home, I am hopeful in knowing that the President read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond,” Cherelle said. “I know BG will be able to find comfort in knowing that she has not been forgotten.”
After Thursday’s hearing, U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken tweeted that embassy officials attended the hearing and delivered Biden’s letter to her. He continued to designate Griner as “wrongfully detained.” Thursday, a Russian official criticized the U.S. government for calling attention to Griner’s case. “The American side’s attempts to foment hype and make noise in the public environment are understandable, but they don’t help to practically resolve issues,” said Sergei A. Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister.
However, many security experts have also voiced concern that raising Griner’s profile in the U.S. could raise the cost of her release.
So where do things go from here? One solution could be Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer found guilty of conspiring to sell weapons to a terrorist organization in 2011. A swap involving Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison, could free both Griner and Whalen.
Russian officials have vocalized their wish to see Bout returned home. In September of 2021, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned two Russian prisoners in the U.S. for whom he said the country was willing to hold talks, according to Russian news agency TASS: Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced to 20 years in 2011, for drug smuggling. In April, Yaroshenko was returned to Russia in exchange for Trevor Reed, a former U.S. marine held in Russia since 2019. Reed was charged with assaulting two police officers.
So with Yaroshenko secured, it stands to reason the Bout might be next on Russia’s wish list. Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge who presided over Bout’s trial—and sentenced him—has long held that the 25-year sentence she was required by statue to give Bout was too harsh for his crime. In a sting operation in Thailand, Bout agree to provide weapons to undercover DEA agents he believed represented FARC, a Colombian rebel group. (The State Department removed FARC from the list of terrorist organizations last year.) “This defendant responded to an opportunity to sell arms presented to him by others, but no evidence was adduced either at trial or pretrial, for that matter, that this defendant was actively looking for an opportunity to become involved with a terrorist organization, such as FARC, Al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah, nor was there any evidence introduced that he was looking for a way to attack Americans rather than embracing an opportunity presented to him,” Scheindlin said at Bout’s 2012 sentencing. “Yes, he embraced an opportunity to make money by supplying a terrorist organization and claimed he had the means to do that. Of course, we don’t know for sure that he could have. But he did not seek out an opportunity because of any long-held ideological based antipathy toward Americans or American policies.”
Today, Scheindlin says that if statutory minimums hadn’t restricted her, she would have sentenced Bout to 10 years: which is about how long he has been in prison for his crime. In the sentencing hearing, Scheindlin acknowledged that Bout “has sold weapons to some of the most vicious regimes in the world and has demonstrated that he would do so again if the opportunity presented itself.” He’s earned the moniker “Merchant of Death” and the 2005 movie Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage, is based on his life. But Scheindlin believes Bout has already paid a sufficient debt. “I don’t think it’s a big risk to trade him back,” says Scheindlin. ” I think he’s long out of this business. Whatever contacts he had, he doesn’t have any more. I frankly think that after this many years in jail, his desire is to go straight and never risk going back to jail, right? It’s too awful an experience. So I don’t think he’s a danger to the U.S. in any way or to anybody else in the world.”
Scheindlin doubts a straight Bout for Grinder trade works politically for the U.S., given the difference in severity between the infractions, alleged or otherwise. “The thought of making an equivalence of such minor violation and such a major long-term criminal is sort of morally repugnant,” says Scheindlin. Adding in Whalen, an accused spy whom the U.S. has also designated as wrongfully detained, evens things out.
Paul Whalen’s sister, Elizabeth, reacted with understandable frustration after finding out that President Biden spoke with Cherelle Griner. “Still looking for that press release saying @POTUS has spoken to anyone in OUR family about #PaulWhelan, wrongfully detained in #Russia for 3.5 years,” Whalen wrote on Twitter. “I am crushed. If he wants to talk about securing Paul’s release, he needs to be talking to the Whelans! What are we to think?!” Elizabeth Whalen told CNN that while she wanted to see Griner return home as much as anyone, but she was “really angry. If you want to undermine the Whelan family trust even more than it has been—bravo. Mission accomplished.”
In an interview with TIME, Paul Whalen’s brother, David, expressed a different sentiment. “Elizabeth’s reaction was different from what I would have shared with the world,” David Whalen says. “Because my perception is that the White House, the U.S. government, is already engaged. It’s sort of like when you’re in a crosswalk, and you press the button to get the sign to change. Pressing it five more times is not necessarily going to get it to change faster. I sort of feel that way about it. We know they know about Paul’s case. We know that they’re working on it.” Later on Wednesday, Elizabeth Whalen walked back her comments a bit. “Folks, we’re so exhausted by this whole process,” she wrote on Twitter. “Let me clarify something important… The Whelans do not begrudge the Griners their access to @POTUS at all.”
Finding patience in such trying circumstances is difficult. But it’s essential, say experts in the field. “We should brace for this to take awhile,” says Danielle Gilbert, a Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow who specializes in hostage diplomacy. Many in the American government oppose bargaining with countries that wrongfully detain American citizens. Doing so, they argue, encourages bad actors to keep taking hostages, endangering Americans living and traveling abroad. But at this point, to bring Griner and others back home, America will likely have to start dealing.
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