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Who Deserves to Come Home?

know your facts Dec 14, 2022
US flag, Russian flag side by side and overlayed with handcuffs

Brittney Griner was released from Russian custody on December 8, 2022 after 10 months. I’ve followed her case in the news, fearful for what she might be going through and sending prayers for her protection and release since she was arrested. And every time I choose to read the comments on an article, I’m disappointed and angry. So many USian social norms are stacked against her, and too many people (and bots) gleefully revel in her misfortune and wish her harm.


Three citizens of the United States held captive in Russia

Trevor Reed

Trevor Reed spent the summer of 2019 in Russia, studying the language and visiting with his then long-time girlfriend, a Russian lawyer in Moscow. Days before he was to return home, he got drunk at a party with friends and his girlfriend’s coworkers. They called the cops after Reed was running around a busy intersection and wouldn’t get in the car to go home. Reed was detained to sober up and later charged with endangering the lives of officers for allegedly grabbing the arm of a police officer as he was being taken to the station, supposedly causing the vehicle to swerve.

Reed was held for 11 months before being sentenced to nine years in prison. He maintained his innocence, saying “it would be unethical and immoral to plead guilty to a crime I didn't commit.” 

Reed was released in April of 2022 as part of a prisoner swap for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in the US of drug smuggling in 2011 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Russia called Yaroshenko’s detention kidnapping because although he was reportedly hired to fly cocaine from South America to Liberia and the drugs were bound for distribution in Africa, Europe, and the US, Yaroshenko had never been to the US.

Reed has since talked publicly about his experience, and asked the US to bring all political prisoners home, mentioning Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, the other prisoners who were being held in Russia.

I don’t remember Americans being angry at this exchange. I don’t remember anyone saying that the US shouldn’t exchange a drug smuggler for someone who was drunk or that he deserved what he got even if it is a harsh punishment, way beyond the punishment if he was arrested here in the US. I don’t remember anyone saying that Yaroshenko hadn’t served enough of his time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Reed a “drunk” and a “troublemaker.” and suggested he was lucky to be in a Russian prison because if he’d “attacked” a cop in the US, “he would have been shot dead on that spot.” He also implied that the sentence was not a big deal, saying, ”These things happen in life. There is nothing horrible about it. It happens to our men as well. Somebody gulps down some vodka and starts a fight. So you violate the law, you go to prison.”


Brittney Griner

In February 2022 Brittney Griner was flying from the US to Russia to play professional basketball, as many female professional athletes do to supplement the salaries they earn in the US. (I’m not going into wage disparities for athletes. The gender wage gap spans all industries.) A drug sniffing dog alerted on her luggage and the Russian Federal Customs Service found a vape pen with less than a gram of cannabis oil. Griner’s doctor submitted a letter stating the cannabis had been prescribed for injury-related pain in 2020.

She was held pre-trial for about 3 months and then convicted of illegally smuggling drugs and sentenced to 9.5 years in prison. She pleaded guilty, saying, “My parents taught me two important things: One, take ownership for your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you get. That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges.”

Griner’s case gained attention partly because she is a two-time Olympic champion basketball player and because detention for less than an ounce of cannabis is a harsh penalty. Her family, friends, and fans worried because as an extremely tall, gay, Black American woman, she could easily become a target. Several times nobody knew where she was being held. It was reported that Russia wasn’t letting her speak with the consulate or letting her communicate with her family.

The level of hate directed at Griner after her arrest and the level of anger about her release piss me off. Griner is just as American as every white man people want released yesterday. Some people are angry because she stopped taking the floor during the national anthem in 2020 in protest and believes sporting events should stop playing the national anthem altogether. (That means they don’t understand freedom of speech or don't care that protest is a right in the US.)  People are saying that Biden should have brought Paul Whelan home first. They claim he’s more deserving because he was a marine and has been locked up longer. They say the swap wasn’t a fair trade because the US released an arms dealer for a basketball player. They’re saying all kinds of vile and hateful things that I won’t repeat or link to. The people arguing over who is more deserving or more American are just more comfortable with seeing a Black woman locked up, regardless of the conditions.

I’m not linking to the photos of Griner in a Russian prison. You can look those up if you’re curious. It broke my heart that she cut off her locs because it was just too cold where she was being held. She said her hair kept freezing. I read some of the comments on one article and people who were saying she should be grateful and that her conditions didn’t look so bad. It boils down to racism, misogynoir, and homophobia.

Paul Whelan’s family has been much more gracious than the racist agitators. Paul’s twin brother David told CNN, “Any time an American comes home is wonderful news. I’m so glad for Brittney and Cherelle. It’s a wonderful day.” He also said the Biden administration “made the right decision” because it was better to make the deal than to wait for “one that wasn’t going to happen.”

Griner was released on December 8, 2022 as part of a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer. Bout was convicted in 2012 in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. He was serving a 25-year sentence.

Paul Whelan

Instead of a simple small infraction turning into a huge punishment like the cases for Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan’s case has intrigue and accusations of espionage. (It also appears just as trumped up as the others based on publicly available information.) On New Year’s Eve 2018, Whelan was in Russia to attend a friend’s wedding. As he was getting dressed in his hotel, Russian intelligence officers burst in, and Whelan disappeared for three days. Then his twin David found a report that he had been charged with espionage. Nearly 18 months later, Whelan was convicted of spying and receiving Russian state secrets and sentenced to16 years in a maximum-security prison. His prison is a renovated one with hot water and a fridge in his shared cell.

At the time of his arrest, Whelan was the head of global security for a US-based car parts firm and traveled the world. Friends talked about his affinity for Russian culture and the military. According to the BBC, there is evidence that Russia had Whelan under surveillance for years because of his interest in friendships with young Russian military men, but there’s no real evidence that Whelan was a spy. The evidence they presented publicly (his trial was behind closed doors), was from the time of his arrest.

Whelan says he was set up by a friend in the FSB, Russian intelligence. On the night of his arrest, he received an unexpected visit from that friend and when he was later arrested, the FSB found a USB drive in his pocket that contained classified information. He claims his friend planted the evidence.

Whelan was born in Canada to British parents of Irish heritage and has citizenship in all three countries. He later moved to the US, gaining citizenship, and joined the marines, where he served from 2003-2008. He largely served as an administrative clerk in Iraq. In 2008 he was dishonorably discharged after being court martialed for trying to steal more than $10,000 from the US government and other lesser offenses. And none of that means he doesn't deserve to come home.

The Biden administration said they will continue to negotiate for Whelan’s release. Watch below as Fiona Hill, former National Security Council senior director for European and Russian affairs, says that *President Trump "wasn't particularly interested in Paul's case in the way one would have thought he would be." But the haters don't want to hear how it may have been possible to get Whelan out in the previous administration.


What’s the difference?

When you look at the media coverage about these three cases, there’s overwhelming support for the two white men. Some people do take issue with Whelan being portrayed as a former marine without mention of his dishonorable discharge and larceny conviction. But often that gets a pass.

The only one who gets major pushback is the most vulnerable person – the gay Black woman basketball star. What could possibly make people so angry that her family, friends, and fans pushed for her release? Why would they hate that she was freed when she was unjustly incarcerated, just like the white men? Why would they spew hate when Whelan’s family supported the trade?

That Biden needed to defend the decision to facilitate Griner’s release because of the outcry and that people still refuse to except the explanation makes me tired. I imagine what it must be doing to Griner, who spoke about not forgetting other prisoners who are still detained abroad and showed gratitude to the people who brought her home. Having compassion in your heart, feeling grateful and possibly survivor’s guilt, and then facing hate because of who you are would just compound the complex mix of emotions.

Emily O. Weltman, a strategy consultant and social entrepreneur who calls for the US to shift inequality to parity, wrote about what it takes to heal from this tragedy and what the US owes Griner and every other marginalized person and group because our society refuses to do the work to heal our nation’s trauma.

If you’re reading this, it’s not hard to be kind and let people live. And if that is too hard for you, I don’t have any words.



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