Brittney Griner Could Get Out of Russia With Prisoner Swap

Brittney Griner’s family has increased pressure on the U.S. government for her release from Russia’s wrongful detention. The early results of the WNBA player’s plea to drug charges at a Moscow court are positive, Biden responded. A deal with Russia to bring Griner home—which includes a potential “prisoner swap” between the two countries—remains in play.

Griner’s guilty plea in Russian court on Thursday, which TIME confirmed through a Griner representative, caps off a week a busy week for her case. Her case has been ongoing since February. After marijuana vape cartridges were discovered in her baggage at Moscow’s airport, Griner could spend 10 years prison. “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor,” Griner reportedly told the court through an interpreter. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said.

Griner, as reported by the media, claimed she brought in haste with her and that the substance was not intended. Griner’s next court hearing is scheduled for July 14.

Griner wrote a letter to the White House in July, describing his accomplishments as a WNBA player, defense player of the Year award two times, and the Olympic gold medal.

LEARN MORE What to Know About WNBA Star Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia

“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote. “On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”

“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees. Do everything you can to help us return home. You were my first vote in 2020. I trust in you. There is so much I can do for my freedom, and you could help me restore it. It’s hard to imagine my life without her! I miss my family! My teammates are my family! I am so sorry that they are going through this. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

After receiving the letter, and following an interview in which Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told CBS’s This Morning it was “very disheartening” that she had not heard from Biden, the President and Vice President Kamala Harris called Cherelle Griner on Wednesday. According to a readout of the call released by the White House, Biden reassured Cherelle that “he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible.” Biden also said that he’s working to secure the release of Paul Whelan, the American former security executive who’s been convicted of espionage in Russia and held since December 2018, “and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia or around the world.” (Whelan has strongly denied the charges).

Biden read Cherelle Griner a draft of a letter he’s sending to Brittney. He also directed his national security team “to remain in regular contact with Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and with other families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.”

Cherelle Griner thanked the President and Vice-President in a post following the conference. “While I will remain concerned and outspoken until she is back home, I am hopeful in knowing that the President read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond,” Cherelle said. “I know BG will be able to find comfort in knowing that she has not been forgotten.”

After Thursday’s hearing, U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken tweeted that embassy officials attended the hearing and delivered Biden’s letter to her. He continued to designate Griner as “wrongfully detained.” Thursday, a Russian official criticized the U.S. government for calling attention to Griner’s case. “The American side’s attempts to foment hype and make noise in the public environment are understandable, but they don’t help to practically resolve issues,” said Sergei A. Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister.

However, many security experts have also voiced concern that raising Griner’s profile in the U.S. could raise the cost of her release.

Proposal for trade

What’s next? Viktor Bout (a Russian arms dealer) was found guilty in 2011 for conspiring to sell arms to terrorist groups. Bout currently serves a 25-year sentence at a federal prison. Griner and Whalen could be freed if Bout was released.

Russian officials voiced their desire for Bout to return home. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov referred to two Russian prisoner in the U.S. in September 2021. According to Russian news agency TASS, Konstantin Yaroshenko and Bout were sentenced in 2011 to 20 years for drug smuggling. Yaroshenko, an ex-marine from the United States, was exchanged with Trevor Reed in April. Reed has been held in Russia since 2018. Reed was charged for assaulting 2 police officers.

So with Yaroshenko secured, it stands to reason the Bout might be next on Russia’s wish list. Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge who presided over Bout’s trial—and sentenced him—has long held that the 25-year sentence she was required by statue to give Bout was too harsh for his crime. Bout agreed to supply weapons to undercover DEA officers he thought represented FARC (a Colombian rebel organization). The State Department removed FARC’s name from its list of terrorist groups last year. “This defendant responded to an opportunity to sell arms presented to him by others, but no evidence was adduced either at trial or pretrial, for that matter, that this defendant was actively looking for an opportunity to become involved with a terrorist organization, such as FARC, Al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah, nor was there any evidence introduced that he was looking for a way to attack Americans rather than embracing an opportunity presented to him,” Scheindlin said at Bout’s 2012 sentencing. “Yes, he embraced an opportunity to make money by supplying a terrorist organization and claimed he had the means to do that. Of course, we don’t know for sure that he could have. But he did not seek out an opportunity because of any long-held ideological based antipathy toward Americans or American policies.”

Learn MoreMerchant of Death? Viktor Bout, Home Movies of Arms Dealer Reveal A Different Character

Today, Scheindlin says that if statutory minimums hadn’t restricted her, she would have sentenced Bout to 10 years: which is about how long he has been in prison for his crime. In the sentencing hearing, Scheindlin acknowledged that Bout “has sold weapons to some of the most vicious regimes in the world and has demonstrated that he would do so again if the opportunity presented itself.” He’s earned the moniker “Merchant of Death” and the 2005 movie Lord of WarNicholas Cage is the star of ‘The Countdown,’ a film based on his personal life. Scheindlin says Bout is in good standing and has paid off enough debts. “I don’t think it’s a big risk to trade him back,” says Scheindlin. ” I think he’s long out of this business. Whatever contacts he had, he doesn’t have any more. My honest opinion is that his wish after spending so much time in prison was to be free and to never go back to jail again. It’s too awful an experience. So I don’t think he’s a danger to the U.S. in any way or to anybody else in the world.”

Scheindlin is skeptical that a Bout for Grinder straight trade will work politically in the United States, due to the severity of the infractions. “The thought of making an equivalence of such minor violation and such a major long-term criminal is sort of morally repugnant,” says Scheindlin. Add Whalen to the mix, an accused spy who has been wrongfully held by the U.S.

Bereavement in the family

Paul Whalen’s sister, Elizabeth, reacted with understandable frustration after finding out that President Biden spoke with Cherelle Griner. “Still looking for that press release saying @POTUS a member of OUR family to discuss this? #PaulWhelanYou were wrongfully taken into custody #Russia for 3.5 years,” Whalen wrote on Twitter. “I am crushed. If he wants to talk about securing Paul’s release, he needs to be talking to the Whelans! How can we think?!” Elizabeth Whalen told CNN that while she wanted to see Griner return home as much as anyone, but she was “really angry. If you want to undermine the Whelan family trust even more than it has been—bravo. Mission accomplished.”

In an interview with TIME, Paul Whalen’s brother, David, expressed a different sentiment. “Elizabeth’s reaction was different from what I would have shared with the world,” David Whalen says. “Because my perception is that the White House, the U.S. government, is already engaged. It’s sort of like when you’re in a crosswalk, and you press the button to get the sign to change. It is possible to press the button five times more to make it change quicker. That’s what I think about it. We know they know about Paul’s case. We know that they’re working on it.” Later on Wednesday, Elizabeth Whalen walked back her comments a bit. “Folks, we’re so exhausted by this whole process,” she wroteTweet. “Let me clarify something important… The Whelans do not begrudge the Griners their access to @POTUS at all.”

In such challenging circumstances, patience is difficult to maintain. But it’s essential, say experts in the field. “We should brace for this to take awhile,” says Danielle Gilbert, a Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow who specializes in hostage diplomacy. Many Americans oppose the idea of negotiating with other countries who wrongly detain American citizens. They argue that this encourages terrorists to continue taking hostages and endangers Americans who live or travel abroad. America may have to begin dealing with Griner, and other hostages, in order to return Griner home.

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