The Russian release of US basketball player Brittney Griner was met with jubilation in the United States, where the star athlete’s family, friends, teammates and other supporters waged a months-long campaign for her return.
But as US President Joe Biden announced Griner’s release on Thursday, many also asked: What about Paul Whelan, the former US Marine who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison in 2020 on espionage charges that Washington says are trumped up?
The Biden administration frequently talks about the cases of Griner and Whelan together, saying that both US citizens were wrongfully detained in Russia.
But the release of Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, in a prisoner exchange with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison, separates his fate from Whelan.
U.S. officials emphasized two points Thursday when speaking about Whelan’s continued detention: that he did not choose to release Griner at the expense of the former Marine, and that he will continue to press for his release.
“Even if we didn’t get it right [Whelan’s] release, we do not give up. We will not give up,” said Biden. “We communicate a lot [his] family, the Whelan family, and my thoughts and prayers are with them today.”
Biden also added that Russia had prosecuted Whelan for “unacceptable reasons”, referring to the espionage charges against him. Whelan, who is serving time in a Russian prison, has denied wrongdoing.
Whelan shows frustration
In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had made a “big offer” to Moscow to release Whelan and Griner. At the time, several US newspapers reported that the US wanted to release Bout on behalf of the two Americans.
Mr Biden also met with relatives of Mr Griner and Mr Whelan at the White House in September to debrief them on what he did to bring the pair to the US.
Whelan, who was arrested in Russia in 2018, was upset on Thursday that he remained behind bars.
“I am very disappointed that more has not been done for my release, especially when the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming. I was arrested for a crime that never happened,” Whelan told CNN in a phone interview. “I don’t understand why I’m here.”
The Griner-Bout deal was the second prisoner exchange between the US and Russia this year.
In April, Moscow released Trevor Reed, a former US Marine, in exchange for the release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving 20 years in US prison on drug charges.
Blinken on Thursday compared the deal in which Reed was released to the one that freed Griner.
“This was similar to what we experienced earlier in April: We found Trevor Reed at home; we wanted to bring [Griner and Whelan] home immediately. At that time, we could not do that,” the US secretary of state told reporters.
“At this time, we could not release Paul. But in the future, we remained determined to do that.”
‘One or not’
Griner, a former Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) player, was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison after Russian authorities found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her bag at a Moscow airport in February. just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Earlier, Biden’s administration said that Griner’s arrest was not justified, and his lawyers said that the sentence was excessive and did not correspond to the seriousness of the crime.
Thursday’s prisoner exchange sparked criticism from Republican lawmakers in the US, including Congressman Michael Waltz, who wrote on Twitter: “Where is US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained by Russia for a long time? Famous among veterans?”
Congresswoman Lisa McClain also expressed concern over the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer whom she called the “Merchant of Death”.
“President Biden just gave Russia a ‘Merchant of Death’, while US Marine Paul Whelan is being held in a Russian prison,” he said in a press release. “We want justice [Whelan]. He should also be on the plane coming home. “
However, Blinken said Thursday that Washington had no choice between releasing Griner or Whelan because Moscow was not open to releasing the former Marine.
“The choice was one or not because, unfortunately, Russia continues to see [Whelan’s] case through a false espionage perspective, and they’re treating her differently than Brittney Griner,” he said.
Mr Whelan’s family also supported the prisoner swap, calling it the “right” decision.
“As a family member of a Russian prisoner, I can imagine the joy [Griner] will be, to be reunited with his loved ones, and during the holidays,” David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, said in a statement.
“There is nothing better than for a wrongly imprisoned person to be freed and go home.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, also vowed to continue pushing for Whelan’s release. “I will remain committed to getting every American home, inclusive [Whelan]whose family is in our thoughts today,” he said at the White House on Thursday.