Rumors Swirl About Possible Brittney Griner Prisoner Exchange

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Photo:  Christian Petersen (Getty Images)
Photo: Christian Petersen (Getty Images)

With fans and supporters still reeling from Brittney Griner’s guilty plea, there’s new speculation about the possibility of a prisoner exchange.

According to NBC News, the Russian government is open to exchanging the WNBA champion for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer currently serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison. “It really isn’t complicated,” said Steve Zissou, Bout’s American lawyer.

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Except it is.

Nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” at the time of his sentencing in 2012, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Bout was “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.” Bout has maintained his innocence and the Russian government has demanded his release since the sentence was delivered.

Let me be perfectly clear: Viktor Bout is a terrorist. He was convicted of conspiring to sell “700-800 surface-to-air missiles, over 20,000 AK-47 firearms, 10 million rounds of ammunition, five tons of C-4 plastic explosives, ‘ultralight’ airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers, and unmanned aerial vehicles” to terrorist group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, per the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Phoenix Mercury center, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia since Feb. 17, pleaded guilty to attempted drug smuggling after being accused of carrying vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. On the first day of her trial, prosecutors said the amounts were 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams. She’s now facing up to 10 years in prison.

While an exchange involving Bout and Griner has been rumored and speculated about for weeks now, the eight-time All-Star’s guilty plea on the second day of her Russian trial certainly makes the conversation seem like more of a possibility. Russian state news agency Tass, which gets its directives straight from the government, reported in May that talks were happening.

The major issue the Biden administration has is that strictly on legal merits, exchanging “the Merchant of Death” for a basketball star facing drug charges isn’t an even trade. There are questions about whether the U.S. may try to include Paul Whelan, an American who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on spying charges his family says are false.

Whether you believe in Brittney Griner’s guilt or innocence, it’s an undeniable fact that she’s in a very complicated situation and needs to come home. She’s a high-profile queer Black woman in a country with anti-LGBTQ+ laws. And as we’ve all learned, her esteemed basketball career does not offer her any protection from the danger she’s in.

Considering the current strained relationship between Russia and the United States, she is being used as a political pawn in global issues that have nothing to do with her. If the U.S. government truly believes in its declaration that she is wrongfully detained, then it needs to do what it takes to bring Brittney home.