On February 22, 2022, Griner was detained at a Moscow airport and later arrested by Russian custom officials for possession of vape cartridges containing less than one gram of medically prescribed hashish oil which was found in her luggage . The center for the WNBA Phoenix Mercury had been in Russia playing basketball for the Russia Premier League during the WNBA's off season.
Ms. Griner often played overseas during the offseason where she can make up to, in some cases, as much as 12 times what she earns in the states. During the 2013/14 off season, she played for China's Zhejiang Golden Bulls, winning MVP in the 2014 WCBA All-Star Game.
In the 2014/15 and 2015/16 off season, she played for the Russian women's basketball team, the UMMC Ekaterinburg along with fellow Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi. She returned for the 2017/18 UMMC season and again for the 2018/19 season. In addition, she won a gold medal as part of the U.S. Women's Basketball Team in the 2016 Olympics and once again in 2021. She also won gold in the FIBA World Cup, along with WNBA and NCAA titles.
There is no question that Brittney Griner is a highly talented athlete, both at home and overseas. However, her international experience should have made her aware of the strict drug laws in some of the countries for which she plays, particularly Russia where she has played in six times now. Even if not, warnings from teammates, friends, and others should have sufficed.
Prisons in Moldavia are notoriously harsh and violent even by Russian standards. Inmates are housed in a "open bay" setting with about 100 bunks in a large open area. Prisoners are not permitted any personal possessions and have no privacy for anything. Like other prisons in Moldavia, human rights violations are believed to commonplace.
Worse for the inmates is that nights are rarely monitored by guards, making beatings and rapes not uncommon. Psychological torture for some prisoners is routine. The U.S. State Department protested the conviction of Ms. Griner as being "unlawfully detained" and the excessive harshness of her sentence.
Brittney Griner is perhaps best known to the public (especially prior to her arrest) as an outspoken advocate of LGBQT rights (she has acknowledged being a lesbian), and taking what is considered to be an "Anti-American" stance by denouncing the playing of the National Anthem at sports venues following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. She is also a active supporter of Black Lives Matter.
The other half of the prisoner swap is Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, aka the "Merchant of Death". The 55 year old Viktor Bout is a weapons manufacturer and dealer as well as a former Soviet military translator. He is believed to own, both directly and indirectly, several companies (most notably a global air freight business which uses Soviet era military heavy transports) to allegedly smuggle weapons (among other things) throughout the world.
The exact nature of Bout's military service is also a mystery. What is known is that he attended the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages where he mastered four languages---English, Farsi (Persian), French, Arabic, Portuguese, and possibly German and Spanish. He is also said to be fluent in "Esperanto", which is the most widely spoken "auxiliary" or second language in the world.
Additional sources make Bout a major with the GRU (Russian Foreign Military Intelligence) and graduate of its military intelligence training program; an officer in the Soviet Air Force; a lieutenant colonel in Soviet Army, and/or an intelligence officer in the old Soviet KGB (as well as in its successor, the FSB). He is known to have been in Angola during its civil war where it's claimed that he added Xhosa and Zulu to his already extensive language repertoire.
His clients are said to include the "Who's Who" of the world's petty despots, thugs, and terrorists. Among them are the Taliban, ISIS/ISIL, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Harem, Al Qaeda (he claims that he has only supplied the Northern Alliance) as well as supplying Liberia, the Congo, Bosnia, Kenya, and Sierra Leone, not to mention arming Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and various Latin American drug cartels.
In addition to weapons, Bout has been allegedly been involved with money laundering and providing false documents. But don't think Bout only works for the bad guys. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that various Bout owned companies received as much as $60 million dollars from U.S. government contractors and CIA front companies to supply U.S. and allied troops in Iraq and elsewhere.
In September 2010 the Thai Criminal Court ruled that Bout's arrest was political, not criminal, and therefore denied the U.S. extradition request. The U.S. Government's Justice Department appealed the decision, and Bout was finally extradited to U.S. in November 2010.
Bout was indicted on a myriad of charges which ranged from several counts of terrorism, selling illegally obtained weapons, conspiracy to support or aid a terrorist organization, conspiracy to harm or kill U.S. Nationals, and conspiracy to harm or kill U.S. government officers and employees. Additional charges of wire fraud, illegal purchase of aircraft, and money laundering rounded out the list.
The Russian Government did all it could to prevent the extradition without success. In a tit-for-tat move, Russia announced that anyone involved with arrest, extradition, trial, or imprisonment of Viktor Bout would be barred from entry into Russia while the U.S. barred certain Russian officials from entry into the U.S.. On April 5, 2012 Bout was sentenced to 25 years in a federal minimum security prison in Marion Illinois with a release date of 2029 (this is the same prison which held mobster John Gotti).
On December 8, 2022, Viktor Bout was part of a prisoner swap for Brittney Griner. In comparing the background and circumstances of both individuals, the trade of Griner for Bout hardly seems equitable, especially given that Russia has held two other Americans for a lot longer.He previously worked for Kelly Security off and on from 2001 through 2016 as senior manager of global security and operations. Whelan joined the Marines in 1994 and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant where he worked as an administrative clerk.
In 2008 he was court-martialed for larceny, which included attempted theft of $10,000+ while on duty in Iraq, writing bad checks totaling $6000, using a stolen social security number to falsify his own exams, and a host of other charges. He busted down to an E-4 and received a "bad conduct" discharge.
Whelan found employment with BorgWarner, an international automotive parts manufacturer, as their director of global security and investigations. As part of his job, Whelan was required to travel a great deal, including to Russia where he made several trips.
According to a BBC report, Whelan was known for bragging about his high level contacts, particularly in Russia where he claimed to know an agent in the FSB (successor of the KGB). According to friends, Whelan had arrived in Moscow on December 22, 2018 to allegedly attend a friend's wedding and had planned to return on January 6th to Michigan (the friend was supposedly a Marine Whelan had previously known).
According to Russian authorities Whelan was arrested in his hotel room on December 28th following a "long outing" with a Russian business contact and supposed friend. Prior to leaving the hotel room, his friend shoved a USB drive into his hand then left. The drive allegedly contained the names of all the employees of a "classified security agency". He was also said to have in his possession $80,000 dollars cash. Russian authorities (and his friend) showed up shortly afterwards and arrested Whelan.Ilya Yatsenko, a major in the FSB's Department "K", which monitors Russian economic crimes.
Whelan was convicted of espionage on June 15, 2020 and sentenced to 16 years. He is currently being held in the high security IK-17 prison in Moldavia. While U.S. officials have repeatedly protested his arrest, Paul Whelan remains a prisoner. As for the CIA, they have officially stated that given his military record, they would not consider hiring someone like Whelan. Also, any operative would have been given a diplomatic passport, which Whelan didn't have.
There have been discussions by the Trump and Biden administrations to swap Whelan for individuals currently being held by the U.S. such as the confessed unregistered foreign agent Maria Butina or Russian hacker Roman Seleznev. In fact, President Biden had suggested July of 2022 to swap Whelan and another American being held, 61 year old Marc Fogel, for Viktor Bout.
Marc Fogel is seen as the "forgotten American". A visiting history teacher at Anglo-American School of Moscow, he was arrested at a Moscow Airport in August 2021 for allegedly having 17 grams of marijuana in his luggage. Fogel admitted possession which had been medically prescribed for chronic back pain. He is currently serving a 14 year sentence at the hard labor prison IK-2.
However, this trade was rejected by the Russians. The Russian perspective is that Whelan was a CIA operative and thus not of "equal value" as Bout, whom they regard as a political prisoner. Griner and Bout are seen as ordinary criminals, albeit of greatly different degrees!
According to the Russians, an equal exchange involving Whelan would merit someone like Chechen rebel leader and "assassin" Vadim Krasikov who was killed in 2019. As an aside, Chechnya and Russia have been locked in brutal fighting off and on for 283 years, with the latest conflict having ended only in 2017. Krasikov was believed responsible for a number of high profile Russian deaths.
Unfortunately, it appears Whelan's and Fogel's stay in Russia will continue for the time being. As for the recent swap, it appears that Russia came out on top with this trade---an international "Merchant of Death" responsible for the death of thousands if not millions for a basketball player who doesn't seem to like the National Anthem or her country very much. It's reminiscent of the now infamous 1920 trade of Babe Ruth by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees for $100,000 plus a loan of $300,000 to buy interest in musical, "My Lady Friends", regardless as the worse trade in history. Not the smartest move.
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