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No Special Treatment for Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan / Wikimedia Commons and American embassy in Moscow
• July 8, 2022 5:00 am

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WNBA player Brittney Griner on Thursday pleaded guilty in a Russian courtroom to possessing less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage when she landed at a Moscow airport in February.

It's a sad story, but Griner is hardly the political prisoner that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have made her out to be. And under no circumstances should the Democratic Party's identity politics allow a black lesbian millionaire athlete who broke the law in a foreign country to receive preferential treatment—as she already is receiving—over genuinely innocent hostages long left to rot in foreign prisons. Even if one were to leave aside the fact, which we simply cannot, that Griner clamored for the removal of the national anthem from WNBA games.

So far, the administration is sending all the wrong signals, elevating Griner's case above that of actual political prisoners like Paul Whelan: A senior U.S. diplomat on Thursday hand-delivered a personal note from Biden to Griner, a move that followed a phone call from Biden and Harris to Griner's partner, Cherelle, in which Biden assured her that he is "working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world."

That may sound like inoffensive boilerplate, but equating Griner and Whelan is indecent. Whelan has been locked up since 2019 on trumped-up espionage charges. He insists he's innocent, and he was almost certainly framed by Russia's spy service.

Whatever one thinks of Russia's draconian drug laws, Griner has quite plausibly admitted her guilt, so it's unclear why Biden and Harris have made Griner's ordeal a higher priority than Whelan's. Now, his family wants to know why. His sister, Elizabeth Whelan, said this week she was "crushed" and that if the president wants to talk about securing Whelan's release, "he needs to be talking to the Whelans!"

Beyond that, Griner is not exactly an American patriot. She launched a campaign in the summer of 2020—in the wake of George Floyd's murder—to press the WNBA to stop playing the national anthem before games. "Yeah, we're here to play basketball. But basketball doesn't mean anything in a world where we can't just live," she told the Washington Post at the time. "We can't wake up and do whatever we want to do. Go for a run, go to the store to buy some candy, drive your car without the fear of being wrongfully pulled over." Maybe after her brush with Russian law enforcement, she'll realize conditions back stateside aren't as oppressive as she made them out to be.

In the meantime, Griner should not jump the line in any prisoner swap negotiated by the Biden administration. Russian media have reported that Moscow wants the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout cut loose in exchange for Griner. His arms trafficking fueled some of the worst wars of the 21st century, from Africa to South America to southwest Asia. He was finally convicted in 2011, after federal agents posing as Colombian Marxist guerrillas caught him in a sting. Should Bout go free because a WNBA star wanted to get high when she was playing basketball in an authoritarian police state? Clearly not.

Biden should reject that rotten deal, but if he's tempted to make a trade, he should demand the Russians first release Paul Whelan.