WASHINGTON (AP) — Brittney Griner is easily the most prominent American locked up by a foreign country. But the WNBA star’s case is tangled up with that of a lesser-known American also imprisoned in Russia.
Paul Whelan has been held in Russia since his December 2018 arrest on espionage charges he and the U.S. government say are false. He was left out of a prisoner exchange in April that brought home yet another detainee, Marine veteran Trevor Reed. That has escalated pressure on the Biden administration to avoid another one-for-one swap that does not include Whelan — even as it presses for the release of Griner, an Olympic gold medalist whose case has drawn global attention.
For Griner and Whelan, the other’s case injects something of a wild card into their own, for better or worse.
The U.S. government may not agree to a deal in which just one of them is released, potentially complicating negotiations. But Whelan could also benefit from the attention given to Griner, which has cast a spotlight on his case. And though the U.S. may hesitate to give up a high-level Russian prisoner in exchange for Griner, who’s charged with a relatively minor drug offense, it’s possible it would be more inclined to do so if both she and Whelan were part of any deal.
The potential interplay between the cases is not lost on the families and supporters of Whelan and Griner.
“It’s still very raw,” Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, said of her brother being excluded from the Reed deal. “And to think we might have to go through that again if Brittney is brought home first is just terrible.”
But “what’s really bad” about feeling that way, she hastened to add, is that she and her family absolutely want Griner released, too. “It’s not like we don’t want her home,” she said. “We want everyone out of there, out of Russia and away from that situation.”
It all adds up to a “sticky wicket,” said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in Russia and is advising the WNBA players’ association on Griner’s case.
If Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, were to leapfrog Whelan in coming home, the administration will face scrutiny from Whelan’s supporters. “And if Paul Whelan gets out first, you’re going to have questions about why isn’t Brittney out when Brittney hasn’t even been convicted yet,” she …read more