The Brittney Griner Prisoner Swap

3 MIN READ

Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and prodigious WNBA player, was detained, arrested, and imprisoned in Russia after airport authorities found a gram of cannabis oil inside of her luggage. Her situation drew national and international attention to the plight of wrongful detainees in foreign countries, as well as prompted renewed support to bring home another American detainee, Paul Whelan. Keep reading to learn more about how Brittney made it back to American soil a month ago, using several resources from HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library, a database included in several Core packages.

The Arrest

Griner was travelling to Russia to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg club basketball team, for which she had played during the WNBA off-season every year since 2014. When she arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport outside of Moscow on February 17, 2022, customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing under a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. However, her arrest was not publicly reported until March 5. Due to the strict cannabis laws in Russia, Griner, a Black and openly gay woman,[1]Leslie C. Griffin, Beyond the Basketball Court: How Brittney Griner’s in My Skin Illustrates Title IX’s Failure to Protect LGBT Athletes at Religious Institutions, 34 LAW & INEQ. 489 (2016). This article can be … Continue reading faced a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison in a country known for its anti-LGBTQ stance.

The U.S. Department of State declared Griner a wrongful detainee in early May.

The Trial

Griner’s trial for drug smuggling began on July 1 in Kimiki, a suburb near Moscow. On July 7, Griner pled guilty, although she again asserted that she had brought the cannabis oil into Russia accidentally and did not intend to break the law. However, in Russia, pleading guilty does not automatically end a trial. Later in the month, Griner’s lawyer submitted a letter from a U.S. doctor in which Griner was recommended medical cannabis to alleviate pain, as well as several anti-doping tests that Griner had passed. On July 19, President Biden signed an executive order holding accountable anyone involved in wrongfully detaining an American citizen.[2]87 Fed. Reg. 43389 (2022), Thursday, July 21, 2022, pages 43389 – 43729. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library. (Want to learn how you can quickly look up an executive order in HeinOnline? Check out our training video!) About a week later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly announced that the United States had made a “significant offer” for Griner’s release, which CNN reported was a proposed trade of Viktor Bout for Griner and Paul Whelan.

On August 4, Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison,[3]Administration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2022 Statement on Russia’s Sentencing of United States Citizen Brittney Y. Griner , Daily Comp. Pres. Docs. 1 (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library. as well as fined 1 million rubles. Her defense team appealed the conviction on August 15, with the Russian court rejecting the appeal on October 25. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, stated on CBS Mornings that Brittney was at her “absolute weakest moment in life right now” as she anticipated the results of her appeal. Russia denied the appeal on October 25, and Griner was moved to a penal colony in Mordovia on November 9.

excerpt from Congressional Record with resolution to release Brittney Griner
Excerpt from the Congressional Record, located in HeinOnline.
excerpt from Biden's statement on Russia's sentencing of Griner

The Exchange

After weeks of unsuccessful negotiations, Russia finally freed Griner on December 8 in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.[4]Administration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2022 Remarks on the Release of Brittney Y. Griner From Detention in Russia and an Exchange With Reporters , Daily Comp. Pres. Docs. 1 (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal … Continue reading However, Whelan, who was arrested nearly four years ago and has been imprisoned in Russia for espionage,[5]167 Cong. Rec. S5027 (2021). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database. was not included in the exchange. David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement, “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.” However, Biden has stated that he is still pushing for Whelan’s release: “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we will not give up. We will never give up.”

excerpt of remarks from Biden on the release of Brittney Griner from detention in Russia

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, also stated that she and Griner will “remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home, we do understand there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing, tremendously, their loved ones.”

Upon her return, Griner appeared to be in good health, and the White House will be offering her specialized physician and mental health services.

HeinOnline Sources

HeinOnline Sources
1 Leslie C. Griffin, Beyond the Basketball Court: How Brittney Griner’s in My Skin Illustrates Title IX’s Failure to Protect LGBT Athletes at Religious Institutions, 34 LAW & INEQ. 489 (2016). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
2 87 Fed. Reg. 43389 (2022), Thursday, July 21, 2022, pages 43389 – 43729. This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library.
3 Administration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2022 Statement on Russia’s Sentencing of United States Citizen Brittney Y. Griner , Daily Comp. Pres. Docs. 1 (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library.
4 Administration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2022 Remarks on the Release of Brittney Y. Griner From Detention in Russia and an Exchange With Reporters , Daily Comp. Pres. Docs. 1 (2022). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library.
5 167 Cong. Rec. S5027 (2021). This document can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database.
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