The WNBA star was released from a Russian penal colony on Thursday in exchange for a notorious Russian arms dealer.
Following an agonizing 294-day odyssey of being incarcerated in Russia for possessing an extremely small amount of cannabis, WNBA star Brittney Griner was released Thursday in a prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to numerous international news outlets.
On February 17th, one week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested and detained at a Russian airport for possessing two vape cartridges containing a total of 0.7 grams of THC. She later pled guilty to all charges and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Last month, the former Baylor Lady Bear was transferred to a Russian penal colony.
After an emotionally charged five months of diplomatic sniping and deceitful communications from Russian officials, Griner's nightmare finally came to an end when President Biden, alongside Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Griner's resilient and longsuffering wife, Cherelle, announced, "She's safe, she's on a plane, she's on her way home."
"She's safe, she's on a plane, she's on her way home."
- U.S. President Joe Biden
However, securing her release came at a steep price. In order to obtain her safe return to the U.S., the Biden Administration had to give back the infamous "Merchant of Death," Viktor Bout. Bout was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans following his arrest and capture in Thailand by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 2008. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison ten years ago and had been serving out that term at a federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.
A former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel, Bout was one of the world's most feared and prolific arms dealers, according to officials at the U.S. Department of Justice. His weaponry and murderous fingerprints inflicted pain and death in violent wars in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Congo, and Libya during the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011.
Comparing an otherwise upstanding athlete and role model's lapse in judgment over possessing 0.7 grams of weed to that of an international criminal and purveyor of mass death and carnage is offensive and deplorable. However, according to former Moscow Ambassador John Sullivan, Russian officials were adamant about getting Bout back on Russian soil or no deal.
The circumstances surrounding the Griner saga have become a flashpoint of debate considering thousands of Americans are still locked up in prison over cannabis-related charges. The families and loved ones of those incarcerated want the Biden Administration to put as much effort and emotional capital behind releasing those individuals from American prisons as it has for the Griner situation in Russia.
Likewise, a substantial number of Americans still wrongfully detained in Russia have been languishing in Russian prisons for much longer than Griner. One of those is Paul Whelan, a Michigan man who has been in jail in Russia for supposed "espionage charges" since December 2018. A charge both his family and the U.S. government vehemently deny.
The hope was to get Griner and Whelan released in exchange for Bout, but the Russians would not budge on its terms that it would only be Griner for Bout. Biden attempted to reassure Whelan's family by saying, "We've not forgotten about Paul Whelan. We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul's release."
"We've not forgotten about Paul Whelan. We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul's release."
- U.S. President Joe Biden
Regardless, Brittney Griner's safe and joyful homecoming from her long and harrowing ordeal is a cause for celebration. However, that elation for her return must be tempered with a reminder of her cautionary tale. In America, especially since marijuana has become legal and so accessible for consumption, many take for granted that in large segments of the world, cannabis is still very illegal, and possessing, consuming, and selling it can still carry harsh and difficult prison time.
Sadly, Brittney Griner became a political pawn in the international chess game of crime and punishment. Because of her experience, she and her wife have vowed to make it their mission to help others going through what they just endured. Furthermore, to its credit, the Biden White House never gave up on bringing Griner back home. However, let us hope the President and his Justice Department work just as hard to release everyone sitting in American jails simply because they wanted to smoke some weed.