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The Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia to bring home Brittney Griner, a WNBA basketball player from Houston facing a trial on drug charges, and Paul Whelan, another American held in Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
As part of the deal, Russia would release Griner and Whelan in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker imprisoned in the U.S., CNN reported. A senior administration official told the news outlet that the deal has the backing of President Joe Biden and is expected to be “successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians.”
Griner has been held in detention for drug possession since February. Her family has repeatedly called on the White House to secure her release, even if that includes a prisoner exchange. Whelan has been held in Russia for espionage since 2018.
Blinken said he will speak with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days to bring up the release of Whelan and Griner. It will be the first meeting since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Another Texas native, former Marine Trevor Reed, was released from Russian prison in an exchange earlier this year. Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot then serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for a cocaine smuggling conspiracy.
The U.S. State Department has generally opposed prisoner trades, saying that it incentivizes countries to detain Americans to use them as bargaining chips, The New York Times reported.
“Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working and living abroad,” the department’s spokesperson, Ned Price, said at a June press briefing.
Russia long called for the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 for agreeing to sell millions of dollars in weapons to a Colombian terrorist group.
Griner’s case has garnered national attention as WNBA players and executives, Texas lawmakers, and civil and human rights groups have advocated for her release.
Griner was arrested at an airport near Moscow after customs officials found two cannabis vape cartridges in her baggage. Testifying in a Russian courtroom earlier Wednesday, the WNBA player said she was not read her rights, according to the Houston Chronicle. Griner has pleaded guilty but said Wednesday she did not intend to bring the cannabis oil with her and packed it in haste, the Chronicle reported. A doctor had prescribed the cannabis oil to her for pain and inflammation from career-related injuries.
Griner, who is Black and gay, finds herself in a country that has engaged in homophobic persecution under President Vladimir Putin’s rule. Griner’s detention has been further complicated by U.S. efforts to support Ukraine as it fends off Russia’s continued invasion.
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