WASHINGTON – With Brittney Griner on her way home from a Russian prison, President Joe Biden and his administration faced criticism Thursday over the agreement that secured the celebrity basketball player’s freedom but left behind a former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Russia for four years.
Republicans in Congress and advocates for Americans detained abroad questioned the administration’s decision to agree to a prisoner swap in which the U.S. freed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner’s release.
Critics said the administration should have demanded that Paul Whelan, the ex-Marine imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, also be freed as a condition of the deal.
“While I welcome the release of Brittney Griner, I cannot help but think about Paul Whelan – as he has apparently been abandoned by the Biden administration,” Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote on Twitter.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., also argued that Whelan’s release should have been part of prisoner swap.
“For Biden to give (Vladimir) Putin a dangerous arms dealer – someone known as the ‘Merchant of Death’ – is weak & disgusting,” Scott tweeted. “Doing so while leaving Paul behind is unforgivable.”
Whelan said in an interview with CNN hours after Griner’s release that he was disappointed that more had not been done to secure his freedom.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said in a phone call from the Russian penal colony where he is being held.
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The Biden administration said it continues to work toward securing Whelan’s freedom, but that Russians were treating his case differently than Griner’s, who was detained in February on drug charges.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was arrested in February after she was stopped by customs officials at a Moscow airport for bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil in vape cartridges into the country.
Senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there was only one option for Griner’s release, and that was a 1-for-1 exchange for Bout, which Russia insisted was the only way Griner would be released from their custody.
“We never forgot about Brittney, and we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said at a White House news conference in which he announced Griner’s release.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. “… Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan’s family said it supports the agreement to free Griner but is devastated that he is still imprisoned in Russia.
“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,” Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement.
David Whelan stressed that the Whelan family does not begrudge Griner her freedom and has always understood there was a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.
Even so, “Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage,” he said.
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Whelan, 52, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have called baseless. The former Marine was convicted by Russia in 2020 of spying and was sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony. Whelan’s lawyer says he was set up by Russian intelligence services.
Griner, who also played pro basketball in Russia, pleaded guilty to the drug charges against her but said during her trial that she accidentally packed the cannabis oil in her luggage in haste and never intended to break the law. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony.
Griner’s case captured public attention not only because of her celebrity, but also because she was a black, openly gay woman imprisoned in a country considered hostile to LGBTQ rights – raising concerns about her treatment by Russian authorities.
While critics of the prisoner swap celebrated Griner’s freedom, they accused the Biden administration of not doing enough to bring Whelan home.
“Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind three times by two presidents,” said Jonathan Franks, spokesman for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, an advocacy group for the families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained in foreign countries.
“He deserves better from his government, and our campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the Biden administration’s release of Russian arms dealer Bout as part of the prisoner exchange as “is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives.”
“Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable,” he said.
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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre rejected the suggestion that Griner had received preferential treatment because of her celebrity.
“This was not a choice for us of which American to bring home,” she said. “It was a choice between bring home one American or bringing home none – and we brought one home today.”
David Whelan noted it was the second time this year that the U.S. failed to win Paul Whelan’s release as part of a prisoner exchange.
Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who spent nearly three years in a Russian prison on charges of assaulting a police officer, was released in April after the U.S. agreed to set free a Russian drug trafficker incarcerated in an American prison.
“How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?” David Whelan said of his brother. “I can’t imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point.
“It’s clear that the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: Rebecca Morin and Joey Garrison
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