Russia’s release of US basketball player Brittney Griner has been met with jubilation in the United States, where the star athlete’s family, friends, teammates and other supporters waged a months-long campaign to secure her return.
But as US President Joe Biden announced that Griner was freed on Thursday, many also asked: What about Paul Whelan, the US Marine veteran sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison in 2020 on espionage charges that Washington says are false?
The Biden administration has regularly spoken about the Griner and Whelan cases together, saying both US citizens were wrongfully detained in Russia.
But the release of Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison, effectively separates her fate from Whelan’s.
US officials stressed two points on Thursday when addressing Whelan’s continued detention: that they did not choose to free Griner at the expense of the former Marine, and that they will continue to push for his release.
“While we have not yet succeeded in securing [Whelan’s] release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said. “We remain in close touch with [his] family, the Whelan family, and my thoughts and prayers are with them today.”
Biden added that Russia treated Whelan’s case differently for “illegitimate reasons”, referring to the espionage charges against him. Whelan, who is serving his sentence at a Russian penal colony, has vehemently denied the allegations.
Whelan expresses disappointment
In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to free both Whelan and Griner. At that time, several US media outlets reported that the US was offering to release Bout in exchange for the two Americans.
Biden also met with Griner’s and Whelan’s family members at the White House in September to update them on his administration’s efforts to bring the pair back to the US.
Whelan, who was arrested in Russia in 2018, expressed disappointment on Thursday that he remained imprisoned.
“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,” Whelan told CNN in a telephone interview. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
The Griner-Bout deal was the second prisoner swap between the US and Russia this year.
In April, Moscow freed Trevor Reed, also a former US Marine, in exchange for the release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in the US on drug charges.
Blinken on Thursday likened the deal that got Reed released to the one that freed Griner.
“This was the same situation that we faced back in April: We got Trevor Reed home; we wanted to bring [Griner and Whelan] home at the same time. In that moment, we were not able to do so,” the US state secretary told reporters.
“In this moment, we were not able to secure Paul’s release. But going forward, we remained absolutely determined to do that.”
‘One or none’
Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) all-star, was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison after Russian authorities found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport in February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Early on, the Biden administration labelled Griner’s detention as unjustified, and her lawyers said the sentence was excessive and did not match the severity of the offence.
Thursday’s prisoner exchange sparked some criticism from Republican legislators in the US, including Congressman Michael Waltz, who wrote on Twitter: “Where is US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly held by Russia for far longer? Celebrities over veterans?”
Congresswoman Lisa McClain also voiced concern over the release of Bout, a prolific Russian arms dealer once dubbed the “Merchant of Death”.
“President Biden just gave Russia its ‘Merchant of Death’ back, while US Marine Paul Whelan is left locked up in a Russian prison,” she said in a social media post. “We need justice for [Whelan]. He should be on that plane coming home, too.”
However, Blinken said on Thursday that Washington had no option to choose between freeing Griner or Whelan because Moscow was not open to releasing the ex-Marine.
“The choice was in this instance one or none because, unfortunately, Russia has continued to see [Whelan’s] case through the lens of sham espionage charges, and they are treating him differently than they treated Brittney Griner,” he said.
Whelan’s family also backed the prisoner exchange, calling it the “right” decision.
“As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy [Griner] will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, said in a statement.
“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, also promised to continue to push for Whelan’s release. “I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including [Whelan], whose family is in our thoughts today,” she said at the White House on Thursday.