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SOMETHING FOR BIDEN TO CONSIDER: MIGHT BRITTNEY GRINER DIE IN PRISON?
As Russia rejects a U.S. demand to release Griner and a second prisoner, the White House must weigh the danger of a potentially long imprisonment: Her mental and physical health are deteriorating
This isn’t fantasy football, Joe Biden. Swapping prisoners with Vladimir Putin isn’t a function performed on a DraftKings app. The White House is demanding a two-for-one deal in negotiations for Brittney Griner, who has been in Russian custody for nearly 8 1/2 months as she awaits a transfer to a penal colony. Bad Vlad reportedly prefers a straight-up trade: Griner for Viktor Bout, a particularly vile arms dealer known as “the merchant of death,” who has served 14 years of a 25-year federal prison sentence.
If we’re playing the game by American rules, the proposal is obscenely one-sided. Griner was guilty of foolishness in packing two vape canisters, loaded with hashish oil, in her luggage on a flight to Moscow. On many U.S. streets, of course, she can get high with a vape pen without a police officer flinching. Bout’s intentions were of a deadly kind — he plotted to kill U.S. officials. But because Griner walked into a geopolitical trap, days before Russia invaded Ukraine, we’re playing by Putin’s house rules here.
And Biden must stop overreaching.
Before the Griner story ends in tragedy.
What the president must consider, as Putin continues to make him look feeble and helpless, is how the ordeal is rotting the basketball star’s mind, body and soul. Long before Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo Airport, she sought counseling for mental health issues, stemming from a childhood when she was bullied and mocked for her height and voice. In a recent CBS interview, her wife, Cherelle, described Griner as being at her “absolute weakest moment in life right now,” relating a phone conversation in which Griner told her, “My life just doesn’t matter. … Like, y’all don’t see the need to get me back home? Am I just nothing?”
Then came Tuesday, when her nine-year prison sentence was upheld by an appeals court. Griner didn’t appear at the hearing in Moscow Regional Court, but her latest apology to the judge was released via a video link. In an image I won’t soon forget, she looked broken as she gripped the bars of her cell in a detention center in Novoye Grishino, wearing a black sweatshirt and wire-framed glasses. Before the ruling, she said, “I really hope the court will adjust this sentence, because it has been very, very stressful and very traumatic to my mental and my psyche and being away from my family, not being able to communicate.”
She continued to claim that packing the hashish oil was an inadvertent mistake, saying, “I did not intend to do this, but I understand the charges against me, and I just hope that that is also taken into account. I’ve been here … eight months, and people with more severe crimes have gotten less than what I was given.” Her refusal to own the error of her ways — please, no one travels to Russia or elsewhere from the U.S. without knowing the potential drug-smuggling consequences — isn’t winning her points with the Kremlin, nor should it. In that vein, don’t count me among those who think Griner has been railroaded from the day of her February arrest. Her sin, insignificant as it might be on our shores, deserved to be penalized beyond an overnight stay. I thought she’d be out by Labor Day, certainly before Halloween. That would have been reasonable under the circumstances, if not fair by our definition, in that cannabis oil is illegal in Russia.
Instead, with Bad Vlad masks available at stores for use this weekend, Griner might not gain freedom for months … or years … or as long as Russia fights a war that America all but forcibly condemns. Her punishment is beyond excessive at this point. In Putin’s zeal to wear down Biden and wave wartime leverage in his face, is he slowly killing Griner? Her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, told the Associated Press that her spirit is waning in confinement. She is required to read books about the Russian penal system, including those written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who served years of hard labor in Siberia. “Brittney’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia,” they said after the ruling. “She had hopes for today, as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.”
The Biden administration has pushed for the release of Griner in tandem with another American, former Marine Paul Whelan, who is serving 16 years after a 2020 espionage conviction. The demand is grounded in presidential hubris, as Biden wants to be perceived as winning the Putin stalemate. But if Griner’s health and well-being are at considerable risk, has he considered the backlash if, God forbid, she never comes home? According to former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, whose private foundation lobbies for the release of Americans detained in other countries, a two-for-one swap won’t happen. He spoke to Russian officials last month and came away with a firm conclusion.
“I think it’s going to be a two-for-two,” Richardson told CNN.
Already facing a lukewarm approval rating before midterm elections, Biden is holding firm on his offer. “We’re in constant contact with Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out,” he said, “and so far, we have not been meeting with much positive response.” Putin’s only interest is making Biden sweat and twist, as the psyche of his 6-foot-9 bargaining chip decays. U.S. officials are using stronger language with every defeat.
“We are aware of the news out of Russia that Brittney Griner will continue to be wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances after having to undergo another sham judicial proceeding,” said Jake Sullivan, national security adviser.
The entire ordeal is a sham, we know. But Putin has no reason to budge, preoccupied with Ukraine and a threatened escalation of nuclear weapons — Biden has said that would be an “incredibly serious mistake.” Amid the threats sits Griner, who spent her 32nd birthday in captivity last week. At this stage, would it be so horrible to include a second prisoner in the deal? Among those suggested by Russian officials are Roman Seleznev, labeled by U.S. prosecutors as “one of the most prolific credit card thieves in history,” and Alexander Vinnik, a cryptocurrency creep. Vinnik’s attorney, Frederic Belot, told the Wall Street Journal that his client was more than amenable to the swap “for humanitarian reasons.”
Brittney Griner qualifies as a humanitarian reason. Every time her gaunt face is shown to the world, the humane reaction is to get her home before she whittles away. Her friends in the basketball world continue to pray, but the public pleas are diminishing as hope subsides. As the WNBA’s Players Association said in a statement Tuesday, “This appeal is further verification that B.G. is not just wrongfully detained — she is very clearly a hostage.”
Thanksgiving is less than a month away. Christmas is less than two months away. Winter is coming, and if she isn’t home by the new year, Dawdling Joe will be as culpable as Bad Vlad.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.