To Brittney Griner’s family, friends, teammates and coaches, her situation is simple:
The Mercury center has been wrongfully detained since being arrested in February at a Moscow airport on charges of possession and transportation of cannabis. President Biden and the U.S. government have the power to cut a deal to have her released. Now.
“I think that POTUS and the White House still need to step up and do something, because 130 days is way too long for someone who’s been wrongfully imprisoned,” Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham said after Monday’s game.
“When he (Biden) decides that she’s going to come home, she’ll come home,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “So, we want to urge him to do his part and bring Brittney home.”
The sentiments are understandable, but few things in life are that simple. A potential swap of prisoners by two countries with a tattered relationship certainly isn’t.
No matter what your opinion might be of Biden, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t want Griner to come home. She’s been held for more than four months and just now, on Friday, is her trial scheduled to start. Not that it will be much of a trial. It’s been reported that fewer than one percent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted. If convicted, Griner could face 10 years in prison.
But the White House and the State Department wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t trying to drive a hard bargain with the Russians.
Latest update: Russian court extends Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner’s detention 6 months
Freeing Griner, according to speculation, could require the U.S. to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader nicknamed “The Merchant of Death.”
He was arrested in 2008 after undercover agents asked Bout to sell them missiles capable of shooting down American planes, and other weapons that could kill American troops.
“He was arguably the largest and most sophisticated arms trafficker on the globe when he was arrested,” Michael Braun, the DEA’s former chief of operations, told Yahoo Sports in May. “He was the guy who could deliver virtually anything with certainty to any bad actor all over the world.”
The possibility of releasing Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence, should make a president pause. Maybe the White House is asking for more in return than just Griner. There has been speculation of a two-for-one swap: Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, for Bout.
Maybe the U.S. is thinking that anything less will lead to other foreign countries arresting Americans in hopes of similar prisoner swaps.
This is not meant to minimize the trauma Griner has endured. Or that of her wife, other family members, teammates and friends. The basketball star and U.S. Olympian might well have been set up when she was arrested, one week before the Russians invaded Ukraine. Experts have said that is not unheard of in Russia.
The Griner critics who say she should have respected another country’s laws ignore that and assume she’s guilty as charged.
All Griner might be guilty of is making a bad decision to return to Russia to play basketball when everyone knew an invasion of Ukraine was imminent and that U.S.-Russian relations would become further strained as a result.
Read more: Phoenix Mercury push for Brittney Griner’s release as Russian court date is set for July 1
For the first few months of Griner’s detainment, supporters stayed relatively quiet, heeding advice that the less said, the better the chances were of her returning home.
That changed in May when the State Department reclassified Griner as wrongfully detained. Since then, supporters, including coaches and players from the WNBA and NBA, including the Mercury and Suns, have advocated for the U.S. to bring her home as soon as possible.
Related: Rep. Greg Stanton’s resolution pushing to free Brittney Griner passes House
But does her case take precedence over Whelan’s? He has been held since December 2018, and in 2020 was sentenced to 16 years on espionage charges that he has denied.
When fellow American Trevor Reed was released in a prisoner swap in April, Whelan asked, rightfully, why he was left behind. It’s a question that will be repeated should Griner come home and Whelan remains behind bars.
As Cunningham said, 130 days is too long for someone wrongfully imprisoned. So is the 1,200 or so in Whelan’s case.
Both need to come home as soon as possible. Reaching that conclusion is easy. Making it happen is far more complicated.
Reach Kent Somers at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @kentsomers. Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.