Brittney Griner’s release from a prison ordeal in Russia sparked an outpouring of joy — but also raised tough questions for Joe Biden: was the US president right to trade a notorious arms dealer for the basketball star jailed on minor drug charges?
The rival Republican Party quickly attacked Biden whose spokeswoman said he made no apologies for freeing Griner, a 32-year-old Olympic gold medalist and LGBTQ trailblazer who was locked up after being found with small quantities of cannabis oil in vape cartridges.
Bout, the inspiration for the movie “Lord of War” who was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, was handed 25 years in prison in 2012.
Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who sentenced him in a federal court in New York, said there was no equivalence between the two cases but welcomed the exchange for Griner.
“I think Viktor Bout has served sufficient time, frankly, for the crimes of which he was convicted,” Scheindlin, now in private practice, told AFP.
She said she was required to hand down a minimum sentence she considered excessive because Bout was convicted on terrorism charges.
Bout was detained in Thailand in 2008 in a US sting for allegedly trying to sell arms to Colombia’s FARC rebels — an operation Scheindlin described as Bout having been “roped in.”
“He himself wasn’t a terrorist. He was a businessman arms dealer. And there are arms dealers in every country including the United States of America.”
– ‘One or none’ –
But Scheindlin said she wished Bout were freed not only for Griner but for Paul Whelan, a former Marine detained in 2018 on espionage accusations.
Although both Whelan and the US government deny the spying allegations, Scheindlin argued that trading him for Bout would have made “a little more sense” given the severity of the charges he faces.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who raised the prisoner swap in rare direct contact with his Russian counterpart in the midst of the Ukraine war, said that Russia treated the two cases differently as it saw Whelan “through the lens of sham espionage charges.”
“This was not a choice about which American to bring home. The choice was, in this instance, one or none,” Blinken told reporters.
Will Pomeranz, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said Russia would see a victory in freeing Bout.
“It demonstrates that the Russian state always has the back of their security services and that they will leave no one behind, even as it means long and protracted negotiation,” he said.
He said that while Griner’s arrest was consistent with Russia’s strict drug laws, President Vladimir Putin “clearly had leverage” after Biden publicly put a priority on freeing Griner, whose plight has drawn wide interest in the United States.
Pomeranz expected a difficult task ahead to free Whelan.
“Paul Whelan’s best chance to get out of Russia was being part of the Brittney Griner swap,” he said.
– Incentive to adversaries? –
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, while welcoming Griner’s release, said the deal showed Putin “how detaining high-profile Americans on relatively minor charges can both distract American officials and cause them to release truly bad individuals who belong behind bars.”
Republican Representative Nicole Malliotakis, pointing to Bout’s record, said Biden should have secured the release of both Whelan and Griner, writing on Twitter, “A US Marine is left behind in another bad deal made by Biden.”
But the United States has repeatedly shown a willingness to carry out deals criticized as disproportionate to free citizens in response to public opinion.
Other democracies have made similar decisions: in one of the most striking examples, Israel in 2011 freed more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the release of a single soldier, Gilad Shalit, by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The United States has set a government policy of not paying ransoms for its citizens, hoping to avoid incentives for hostage-taking.
In a possible sign of the public mood, an American football player, Micah Parsons, voiced anger on Twitter that the United States “left a Marine” but backtracked and apologized after a deluge of criticism and said he was “extremely happy” for Griner.
Paul Rieckhoff, a veterans advocate and commentator, said that Whelan should be released “full stop” but said Griner was “at unique risk in Russian prison” as a Black and LGBTQ woman.
“When she gets home, I have no doubt she’ll be out in front leading the fight for the release of Paul Whelan. And we should all join her.”