In a prisoner exchange almost ten months after his detention, basketball player Brittney Griner took a flight from Russia to the United States.
A high-profile Russian prisoner named Viktor Bout, who had been apprehended on suspicion of trafficking weapons, was exchanged for Brittney in the accord. Before the presidential elections, Joe Biden’s goal with the swap was to advance another issue. A second American arrested in Russia, Paul Whelan, who has been there for more than four years, was not released after negotiations between the US and Russia failed.
“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.
When negotiating Whelan’s case with the Russian government, Biden reassured the public that his administration would put forth much effort. While this was going on, Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, spoke with President Biden to express her appreciation for the development of the case. Brittney will then travel to a hospital in San Antonio to receive medication and evaluation.
Griner’s case began in February when Russian investigators discovered vape cans containing cannabis oil in his luggage. As a result, Sheremetyevo Airport officials in Moscow imprisoned the basketball star on drug charges. While Russia’s war against Ukraine raged on, Biden negotiated Griner’s release with the Russian government.
Griner inside a Russian prison
The detention of Griner concerned many professionals. As a result of the risks it presents, they argue that Griner should be detained in a Russian prison. According to a US State Department investigation, crimes and abuse in Russian prisons were widespread. Griner and his safety are also in danger since numerous authorities torture inmates.
“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. Brittney Griner is being held by Russia simply because she is an American,” explained Linsay Colas, Griner’s agent.
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Being incarcerated in a Russian jail would be challenging for a prominent homosexual Black lady. Russian political science professor and historian Rudra Sil was concerned about Griner’s existence within a forbidding institution. If Griner stayed in the Russian penal colony for a prolonged period, harsh conditions awaited her, according to Sil.
“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. African Americans were treated better than Africans in the Soviet Union,” 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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Negotiation for former US Marine Whelan
The former US Marine Paul Whelan was under Russian custody, and Biden made no mistakes in mentioning his efforts to free him. However, following an espionage suspicion, the Russian government imprisoned Whelan. He was thus apprehended by the authorities and imprisoned. According to claims in the official media, Whelan will spend 16 years in prison.
“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.
Atkin claimed that although serving time in a Russian prison was dangerous, things improved. According to the Penal Reform Organization, Russian prisons have reportedly undergone practical changes. These were developed to protect the prisoners’ health and welfare.
“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
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