Brittney Griner Brought Home in Exchange for Russian “Merchant of Death”

Brittney Griner Brought Home in Exchange for Russian

( – Basketball player Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian labor camp after an agreed-upon prisoner exchange. Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for importing drugs into Russia, was swapped for a notorious arms dealer. While US politicians are all glad she’s coming home, many of them are wondering if this is really the best deal the White House could get.

Drug Violation Draws Heavy Punishment

On February 17, Griner, who has won two Olympic gold medals for women’s basketball, was caught by customs officers at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with vaporizer cartridges containing under a gram of medicinal marijuana, which she had been prescribed in the US. However, that substance is illegal in Russia, and Griner was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to nine years in prison.

Even before Griner was sentenced, there were rumors she could be exchanged for arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving 25 years in the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois. Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” was convicted of trying to sell anti-aircraft missiles to a far-left terrorist group in Colombia, which planned to use them against US forces. Before that, he had shipped weapons — mostly ex-Soviet surplus stock — to countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in those countries, victims of wars fueled by Bout’s arms deals.

A Weak Bargain?

In July, President Biden approved a deal that would have exchanged Bout for Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who was arrested at a Moscow hotel on spying charges in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. However, Russia had different ideas. When negotiations started, it turned out they were willing to negotiate on Griner — but they took a very hard line on Whelan. In the end, the Biden administration agreed to release Bout and only get back Griner in exchange. Whelan will remain in a high-security prison near Moscow.

Members of Congress reacted positively to Griner’s release, but many — mostly Republicans — were disappointed that someone as dangerous as Bout, who had been selling advanced weapons to extremist groups for decades, was released in exchange for a single prisoner who was unquestionably guilty of a drug offense.

Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) said the deal should also have included Whelan. Rep Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) agreed, saying, “we should have gotten our US Marine home as well.” Sadly, while they have a point, the Russian stance was quite clear — Whelan’s release wasn’t up for negotiation. Of course, Griner’s release is great news for her family, but another American has been in a Russian cell for much longer — and he won’t be coming home anytime soon.

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