The athlete was sentenced to nine years in prison and paid one million rubles for carrying a medical cannabis vaporizer in her suitcase, legally prescribed by an Arizona doctor.
About to serve four years in a Russian prison on charges of espionage, former US Marine Paul Whelan was convinced he would spend Christmas at home this year. This was what his lawyer, the US authorities and his own family, who tirelessly fight for his release, had led him to believe. The bargaining chip was the dangerous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, close to Vladimir Putin. But when the exchange finally took place today, the one who was released from prison was not him, but the basketball player Brittney Griner, arrested in February for carrying cartridges with cannabis oil in her suitcase.
“What! That they have left behind a marine? Hell no, that’s not done!” Dallas Cowboys football star Micah Parson wrote on Twitter. It was the second time Whelan had been left waiting for his imminent release. Last April, the president exchanged a Russian pilot convicted of drugs in exchange for Trevor Reed, another ex-marine wrongfully imprisoned in Russia after an altercation with local police. In that case, Biden said that Reed’s delicate state of health forced him to make “difficult decisions.”
This time Whelan’s lawyer in Moscow went beyond the usual disappointment to accuse the president of having chosen the basketball player “because she is a woman, she is more human, and she is an Olympic champion,” said Vladimir Zherebenkov. In a press conference with the wife of Brittney Griner, the president flatly denied that it had been an election. “Unfortunately, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.” According to the White House and the State Department, Moscow accuses him of being a spy and wants another spy in return. The US has some 300 Russian citizens in its prisons, but none accused of espionage, so it is believed that Putin hopes that he will convince Sweden or Norway to release one in exchange for the American.
Once the details of the case were explained, those who put the cry in the sky in the early hours began to back down. The American football player apologized, arguing that coming from a military family makes him especially sensitive to leaving a Marine in a Russian labor camp. “I’m as far as a Trump supporter, but I’m not a Biden fan either,” he clarified. Of course, “next time I will find out the details before pouring my emotions on Twitter,” he promised. Whelan’s family also publicly thanked the release of the Olympic star, whose wife has promised to continue working on the ex-marine’s release. “The president did the right thing,” his brother David Whelan said.
The exchange took place at an airport in the United Arab Emirates, to which Biden thanked his collaboration. Griner, 32, a player for the Phoenix Mercury, had been detained at the Moscow airport just a week before Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine and she had always considered herself a political hostage. In reality, negotiators from different US governments have been hearing about Viktor Bout, the arms dealer Putin wanted back, for decades.
Detained in a country where gays are criminalized, Griner was especially vulnerable as she was black and openly lesbian. Nine years and a million rubles to pack a medical cannabis vaporizer, legally prescribed by an Arizona doctor, was completely disproportionate. With the exchange, she has been put at the level of a man known as ‘The Merchant of Death’, arrested in Thailand in 2008 during an international operation by Interpol, the British Foreign Office and the American DEA, whose informant claimed to be a agent of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to whom he was going to sell weapons. A Manhattan court sentenced him to 25 years for providing aid to terrorist organizations, conspiring to kill US citizens and supplying the enemy with anti-aircraft missiles to carry out attacks.
Griner arrived in his native Texas today not knowing yet if he’ll play basketball again, but there’s no doubt that Bout will return to the business he’s been following since jail. “Everything is fine,” he greeted the cameras from the Moscow airport.
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