Basketball star Brittney Griner flew back to the United States from Russia in a prisoner exchange almost ten months after his detention.
The agreement swapped Brittney for a high-profile Russian prisoner Viktor Bout, captured due to arms dealing charge. The swap marked another goal for US President Joe Biden ahead of the national elections. However, the US fell short of negotiating the release of another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, who has served at a Russian facility for over four years.
“She is safe. And she is on a plane. She is on her way home. She will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones. And she should have been there all along,” said Biden in a White House speech.
Biden assured the public that his administration would work hard to negotiate Whelan’s case with the Russian government. Meanwhile, Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, talked to president Biden to express her gratitude for the development in the case. Finally, Brittney will head to a San Antonio medical facility where we will receive medications and evaluations.
Griner’s case started in February when Russian officials allegedly found vape cans with cannabis oil in the luggage. As a result, the Sheremetyevo Airport officials in Moscow jailed the basketball star on the grounds of drug charges. While Russia’s war against Ukraine continued, Biden negotiated with the Russian government to release Griner.
Griner serving prison in Russia
Griner’s detention worried many experts. They contend that Griner jailed in Russian prison exposes her to many risks. According to a US State Department report, Russian prison’s crimes and abuse were systemic. Moreover, several authorities torture prisoners, which threatens Griner and his safety.
“Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life-threatening. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities,” said the report.
“Russian prisons are grim, even relative to prisons in other countries. And the Putin regime has ramped up hostility towards gays and lesbians as part of its broader policy of hard-line nationalism,” added Murial Atkin, a Russian history instructor from George Washington University.
“Brittney Griner’s nine-plus year sentence is regarded as harsh and extreme by Russian legal standards. Today’s disappointing yet unsurprising appeal outcome further validates that she is being held hostage and used as a political pawn,” explained Linsay Colas, Griner’s agent.
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A threat within the Russian penal colony
As a high-profile gay Black woman, serving in a Russian prison facility would present many difficulties. Rudra Sil, a Russian political science instructor and historian, feared what life would offer for Griner inside a tenacious facility. According to Sil, Griner would face brutal circumstances if she stayed long within the Russian penal colony.
“She’s Black. She’s gay. And this is a marijuana case. So what are the three biggest issues in the United States in terms of domestic politics? Marijuana convictions, LGBTQ issues, anti-Black racism — and the carceral system,” said Kimberly St. Julian Varnon, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.
“What Brittney represents is new in terms of the treatment of African Americans in Russia because she no longer has the privilege that many African Americans had,” she added.
“The Africans were seen as the little brothers who needed socialist education and needed the leadership of the Soviet Union to obtain modernity.”
“The image of suffering, particularly African American suffering, became the controlling image of Blackness in Russia. In many ways, Russia has always used anti-Black racism and Black suffering for its own gain.”
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The case of US Marine Whelan
Biden made no mistake in mentioning his efforts to free former US Marine Paul Whelan from Russian jurisdiction. The Russian government detained Whelan after it suspected him of spying. As a result, the government captured him and put him in jail. According to state media reports, Whelan will serve his sentence for 16 years.
“There was no evidence recited by the judge that justified the detention that he’s already been subjected to, which is a year and a half,” said John J. Sullivan, a US ambassador to Russia.
“Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal. And during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition. And unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends,” said Mike Pompeo.
“We had hoped that the court might show some independence. But in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities. So we look to the US government to immediately take steps to bring Paul home,” said David Whelan, Paul’s brother.
While serving in Russian prisons proved threatening, Atkin said that the situation improved. According to the Penal Reform Organization, Russia has been making pragmatic changes within its facilities. The changes ensured the safety and well-being of its prisoners.
“Russia has been undergoing a process of reform of the criminal justice system over the last 20 years. But there is still far too little consideration given to the promotion of gender equality and protection of the rights of women and girls in conflict with the law,” said the report.
“Even in the best of times, it is not easy to get someone released in a foreign country, especially if there is a legal process getting underway,” remarked Sil.
Photo Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko