December 8, 2022

Prisoner Swap for WNBA’s Brittney Griner

The trade-off for her freedom, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, is not a good one.

Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner is on her way home from her stint in a Russian prison. She was arrested in the country last February for drug possession and only recently began serving a 10-year prison sentence in a Russian jail.

Griner was caught with empty vapes and hashish oil in her luggage. Russia has zero tolerance for such drug use. Griner was aware of these laws but brought the items anyway. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin probably made sure that Griner received the maximum sentence for her crimes knowing he could use it for leverage later on.

Back in August, rumors began to fly that President Joe Biden and his team were attempting to make a prisoner exchange for the star athlete. Unfortunately, Russia was demanding a very uneven swap; Moscow wanted Viktor Bout, colloquially known as “The Merchant of Death.” The actions of this man have directly led to the rape and torture of innocents, the empowerment of America’s enemies such as the Taliban, and the arming of dangerous despots.

Americans made their thoughts known that this exchange was a very bad one and made us look weak. Talks seemed to die down, and Griner cooled her heels in a Russian cell. Part of this was due to the political isolation of Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. No other public moves were made until news of her release hit headlines this morning. It was a one-for-one exchange: Griner for Bout.

The U.S. is supporting the Ukrainian victims of Putin’s war of aggression, and yet we are willing to return to him a man who will go right back to inflicting horrible pain and chaos in Putin’s name? It seems very contrary to U.S. interests. Of course, being gay and black, Griner checks the right identity boxes.

Paul Whelan, the white male American former Marine still sitting in a Russian prison cell since 2018, said: “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. … I’m happy that Brittney is going home … but I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

As much as we want every American prisoner who is detained abroad (especially those who are detained unjustly, unlike Griner) to be released, the Griner-for-Bout exchange continues a dangerous precedent. It sends a message to enemy countries and foreign regimes that they can arrest and detain our athletes at will and the U.S.will free their dangerous criminals in exchange.

Is it surprising under Biden, though? After all, he learned from the “best.” His former boss, President Barack Obama, started this precedent with his unlawful and ill-advised trade for “Sergeant” Bowe Bergdahl. The difference there is that five high-level Taliban prisoners were released in exchange for one American traitor. That swap did permanent damage.

As for Griner, the lingering question remains: What other concessions were made? One can only hope that some backroom deals around this exchange benefited the United States because the trade itself most certainly did not.


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