A Russian state TV host recently had to stop herself from laughing before suggesting that Paul Whelan, a Marine Corps veteran who remains imprisoned in Russia despite a prisoner swap for basketball star Brittney Griner, was left behind in a Russian prison because he’s a straight, white male.
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia’s main state media outlet, RT, compared Whelan to Griner – a black lesbian – in a clip translated by Russian Media Monitor.
Describing Whelan from the U.S. perspective as “a hero … covered in medals,” she said he was left behind for three reasons: “His first problem is that he is white. His second problem is that he is a man. His third problem: He is a heterosexual. This is not something that can be forgiven today.”
Griner, a top female basketball player and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in February when Moscow customs officials discovered a cannabis vape in her luggage. She was released from a penal colony last week in exchange for the U.S. freeing Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer nicknamed “the Merchant of Death.”
Since then, President Joe Biden’s administration has taken heat in the U.S. for not prioritizing Whelan, who was first detained in 2018 and is now serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor on espionage charges. Whelan continues to deny all charges.
Over in Russia, Simonyan piggybacked on this line of attack in a nearly three-minute rant on live TV.
“American voters were given a choice: a hero who suffered while serving his fatherland, a medal-covered hero who suffered during his service to his fatherland – the United States – or a black lesbian, hooked on drugs, who suffered for a vape with hashish,” she said.
“For us, it’s one more piece of good news,” she continued. “The first good news is that Bout has returned, and the second good news is [the U.S. is] a nation that spits on its heroes. … This says a lot about the state of this society, of these intelligence agencies, and everything related to geopolitical confrontation.”
The U.S. at one point proposed swapping Bout for both Whelan and Griner. But according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, “there was never a choice” that would have freed Whelan, whom he said “is put in a special category by the Russians.”
Whelan recently called for action on his release, wondering why he’s “still sitting here.” His brother, David, said Biden “made the right choice” in securing Griner, adding that Biden is “100 percent engaged on bringing Paul home” and his imprisonment is “all about extortion.”