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Brittney Griner released in Russia/US prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout; Whelan still captive in Russia

The United States' Brittney Griner (15) shoots over Japan's Maki Takada (8) during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Women's Basketball Final at Saitama Super Arena on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
December 08, 2022

U.S. women’s basketball player Brittney Griner was freed from prison in Russia on Thursday in a one-for-one exchange for the U.S. release of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Paul Whelan, a U.S. Marine veteran who has been held by Russia since 2018 remains in Russian custody.

President Joe Biden announced Griner’s release on Thursday morning, tweeting, “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”

Griner recently began serving a nine-year prison sentence at a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia Region. The American basketball player received the sentence after she was arrested in Moscow in February after Russian authorities discovered hashish cannabis oil in her luggage, which is considered an illegal drug in Russia.

The Biden administration had been in talks with the Russian government for months for Griner’s release. During those talks, the Biden administration had also raised the possibility of winning Whelan’s release from Russian custody.

At a White House press conference, Biden said “We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years.”

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden added. “We brought home [U.S. Marine veteran] Trevor Reed when we had a chance earlier this year. Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up.”

Paul’s brother, David Whelan, expressed some gratitude at the news of Griner’s release, but shared his family’s disappointment that Paul was not also released.

“At some level, our family has steeled ourselves for this likelihood,” David Whelan wrote. “And I think, as the use of wrongful detentions and hostage diplomacy continues around the globe, it’s clear the US government needs to be more assertive. If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance.”

David Whelan also said, “I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the US government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He’d been worrying about where he’d live when he got back to the US.”

“And now what? How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?” David Whelan wrote. “I can’t imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point. It’s clear that the US government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.”

On Thursday, PBS defense correspondent Nick Schifrin tweeted that a senior U.S. official said Russian negotiators in the prisoner swap communicated that Paul Whelan’s release would not be an option.

“NEW: Senior US official: ‘In recent weeks,’ Russians made clear this was ‘not a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice of bringing home one American, Britney, or bringing home none,'” Schifrin tweeted.

This was a breaking news story. The details were periodically updated as more information became available.