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Biden’s Griner Deal Sparks Controversy, Calls to Secure the Release of Other Russian Prisoners

Published: December 8, 2022
US' Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, arrives at a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on Aug. 4, 2022. (Image: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 8 U.S. President Joe Biden announced that his administration had reached a deal with Russian authorities to secure the release of Brittney Griner, via a prisoner-swap. Griner was, until today, imprisoned in a Russian penal colony on a drug conviction. 

While announcing the prisoner swap, Biden said, “She’s safe, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances.”

The deal has sparked significant controversy with many criticizing the deal as lopsided while others argue that other Americans, who are currently rotting away in Russia’s penal system on dubious charges, have been forgotten. 

The Biden administration facilitated a prisoner swap for the infamous arms dealer Viktor Bout who is also known as the Merchant of Death. Bout was serving a 25-year sentence in an American prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they intended on killing Americans. 

Bout was the inspiration for the 2005 Nicholas Cage movie Lord of War. 

Griner was first detained on Feb. 17 of this year after she was accused by Russian authorities of carrying hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. At the time, Griner was visiting Russia to play with her professional team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, which she played for during the W.N.B.A. off-season. 

In February of this year, the Russian Federal Customs Service said that a drug sniffing canine had prompted a search of Griner’s luggage which revealed vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Russia has strict laws concerning narcotics. She was promptly arrested, tried for the crime and sentenced to nine years in prison.

According to the New York Times, the Biden administration tried for months to strike a deal with its Russian counterparts for her and another American’s release, U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. 

Paul Nicholas Whelan, 52, is a Canadian-born former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Russia in late Dec. 2018, accused of spying. In June of 2020, he received a 16-year sentence and is currently imprisoned in a Russian penal colony.

The Biden administration’s apparent failure to secure the release of Whelan, in addition to Griner, has sparked significant backlash.

The New York Times reported that Biden’s deal “could risk creating an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad,” while Twitter lit up with users panning the deal as lopsided and dangerous.

Donald Trump Jr. took to Twitter to criticize the deal, telling his over 9.4 million followers, “You guys know how to make sure Putin keeps arresting Americans and severely punishing them? Trade him an arms dealer aka ‘The Merchant of Death’ someone guilty of conspiring to kill Americans and aiding a terrorist organization for an America Hating WNBA activist.”

Griner previously came under fire for comments she made that many panned as anti-American. In 2020, she refused to stand for the American national anthem saying, “I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season. I think we should take that much of a stand.” She said she opposed the Star-Spangled Banner because it “didn’t even represent all Americans when it was first made.”

Seth Dillion, CEO of The Babylon Bee, a popular satire site, took a softer tone telling his 516-thousand followers, “Brittany Griner was a captive set free at a significant cost by the homeland she despises. From one angle, it’s a terrible deal. From another, it’s a beautiful illustration of God’s grace. Jesus died to set us free ‘while we were yet sinners’ undeserving of redemption.”

Benny Johnson, an American political columnist, currently serving as chief creative officer at conservative organization Turning Point USA tweeted, “Meet Brittney Griner & Marine Paul Whelan. Both Americans. Both were convicted in Russian courts on dubious charges. Both serving multi-year sentences in Russian prison. Brittney hates America. Paul served America. Guess which one Biden traded a terrorist to free? Semper fi Paul.”

“Semper fi” or “semper fidelis” is a Latin phrase that means “always faithful” or “always loyal” and is the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps. 

The Daily Wires Matt Walsh tweeted, “Brittney Griner broke Russian law. She brought drug paraphernalia into Russia. They didn’t fabricate the charges against her. She did it. She deserved to stay in prison until a deal that serves American interests – and includes Paul Whelan – could be reached.”

Scrolling through the thousands of responses on Twitter concerning the circumstances around Griner’s release wields few responses in support of the deal however, some are relieved Griner is free while also demanding Whelan’s release. 

National Football League quarterback, Robert Griffin III, tweeted, “Celebrate Brittney Griner coming home to her family and now let’s get Marine Paul Whelan home too.”

Griner is expected to reach U.S. soil within the next 24-hours.