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  • Georgia Bennett

Russia and US Negotiating Unprecedented Prisoner Trade

Georgia Bennett gives an update with the latest news on the detained Olympian Brittney Griner following her arrest earlier this year. She notes her new location, following it being unknown in the past few week,s as well as the reopening of the possibility of a prisoner swap:

Artwork by Innes Clark (IG: @Innesclarkillo).

Two days ago, WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) player and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner, was transferred to a Russian penal colony from a detention center outside of Moscow. This escalation of events was paired with the Kremlin reopening the possibility of a prisoner swap last week.

Brittney Griner was arrested in Sheremetyevo International Airport in Russia on smuggling charges in February of this year for carrying vaporizer cartridges containing >1 gram of hash oil. The cartridges had been medically dispensed legally in Arizona, though illegal in Russia, unbeknownst to Griner. This resulted in the Basketball player being handed down a nine year prison sentence following trials culminating on the 4th of August - despite her confessing to it being an “honest mistake”.

The situation has arisen in the midst of rising tension between the US and Russia, following the invasion of Ukraine. The Joe Biden administration pledged on Wednesday the 9th of November, “I’m telling you I’m determined to get her home and get her home safely,” the 46th President of the US declared at a press conference. Biden also informed journalists that he had been in conversation with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner who remains in the United States. Griner is one of the most prominently decorated, black and openly gay professional basketball players in the world, adding to the fear surrounding her detainment in Russia. In recent years, the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia have been increasingly compromised, culminating in a fever pitch in 2019 when anti-gay purges took place in the region of Chechyna.

Immediately following the move to the penal colony, Russia has opened the possibility of an exchange of prisoners. The trade would be for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bout had been using his multiple air transport companies to smuggle weapons globally and was extradited from Thailand to the US in 2010 which was followed by a 25 year prison sentence in 2012.

Washington, however, has dismissed the seriousness of the Kremlin’s intentions. Prior negotiations, which had attempted to include the trade of the US Marine Paul N. Whelan, also imprisoned in Russia, have failed to gain traction since their proposal in June until now. In response to the Kremlin officially acknowledging the proposed exchange, department spokesman Vedant Patel responded, “We have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith.”

The pressure of the retrieval mission is heightened by recent issues of the extradition of Americans abroad. In 2017, the 22 year old American Otto Warmbier died imminently in the US having been freed after 17 months as a prisoner in North Korea. Warmbier was returned in a vegetative state after being detained under accusations of stealing a propaganda poster during a trip to North Korea, though North Korea have claimed he suffered from botulism and an unexpected reaction to a sleeping pill. However, his teeth being misaligned, a large scar on his foot and his death within six days of his return to the US has led to speculation of extreme torture. Due to the Trump administration’s mishandling of this case, the pressure on Biden to act is escalating in order to prevent another instance of diplomatic fumbling with fatal consequences. The acknowledgment of such pressure resounded in Biden’s press conference as he corrected his promise, “to get her home and get her home safely”, suggesting an underlying fear of the danger of history repeating itself.

Such concerns for Griner’s safety in light of the cases of Americans such as Warmbier were heightened at the beginning of November when her exact whereabouts nor final destination were known by her legal team, as declared in a statement. However, she is now known to be in a penal colony in Mordovia as her legal team were able to update news outlets on Thursday the 17th of November.

Due to the history of relations between the US and Russia as well as the unignorable backdrop of the invasion of Ukraine, this prisoner swap would be particularly exceptional amid such strained tensions. The Guardian journalist Luke Harding has noted that “​​the exchange would mark one of the more extraordinary prisoner swaps in their history.” As concerns for Griner mount following her confinement to the Russian penal colony, the pressure on the Biden administration rises to walk this politically precarious tightrope and retrieve the Olymian both safely and as rapidly as possible.



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