Brittney Griner Released from Russian Prison in Exchange for Arms Dealer

Brittney Griner was swapped for Viktor Bout, aka the ‘Merchant of Death.’
Photo by Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty

WNBA star Brittney Griner, after being locked up for months in Russia for a small amount of cannabis, was released Thursday in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at a Russian airport on February 17 and later pleaded guilty to charges of possession of cannabis cartridges in her luggage, one week before Russia invaded Ukraine. 

She ultimately faced nine years in prison for 0.7 grams of weed: “[Ms. Griner] bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil, totaling 0.702 grams,” Russian news agency TASS stated. Griner was transferred to a Russian penal colony last month.

Griner’s case is a flashpoint for debate—given the thousands of other Americans in prison in the U.S. and beyond on cannabis-related charges. Five months of diplomacy and deceitful messages from Russian officials finally came to an end.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said at the White House, alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement released by Russian news agencies that the swap took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home. Last week a top Russian official said that a deal was underway, as did Biden.

Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said on November 18 that there was new activity surrounding a potential prisoner swap, but people remained generally skeptical. Amid the unprovoked invasion in the Ukraine, tensions remain high.

The outcome, however, feels bittersweet for people with family members locked up on cannabis related charges.

Griner Release Comes at a Price

Griner’s release comes at a price: In order to secure Griner’s release, Biden ordered Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” to be freed and returned to Russia as a stipulation. Biden signed a commutation order freeing Bout from his 25-year federal prison sentence.

Bout is a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who was described by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout’s fingerprint can be seen in the supply of missiles and arms in violent wars in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Congo, and the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya in 2011.

Frankly, the fact that 0.7 grams of weed is considered equivalent is outrageous.

CBS News reports that according to the former Moscow Ambassador John Sullivan, Russian officials fixated on freeing Bout, or no deal was in order.

Bout was arrested by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Thailand following a sting operation carried out by American agents in 2008. He was eventually convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and was sentenced to 25 years in prison about 10 years ago. 

Bout was most recently incarcerated at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois before the release.

Free Other Prisoners

As thousands of other cannabis prisoners in the U.S. and beyond await their own releases, some celebrities pointed out the hypocrisy. 

U.S. officials attempted for several months to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan man also locked up in Russia since December 2018 on “espionage charges” that his family and the U.S. government both deny.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

But it’s important to keep in mind that Whelan’s own family supports the release, despite still waiting for Paul’s release. “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” Paul’s brother David said in a statement.

Last April, the U.S. traded Russian cocaine smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko for American former prisoner Trevor Reed. 

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