Brittney Griner’s family said they are praying for the ex-US marine stuck languishing in a Russian prison while also expressing gratitude to the Biden administration for the WNBA star’s freedom.
Griner, 32, was freed by Russia on Thursday after nearly 10 months in the country’s custody in a prisoner exchange with the US for infamous arms dealer, Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.”
“We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to President Biden and his administration for the tireless work they did to bring Brittney home,” the Griner family said in a statement.
Critics, however, felt the Biden administration was wrong to leave behind former marine Paul Whelan, 53, who has been sitting in a Russian prison for almost four years.
“Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this [deal] is unconscionable,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted.
The Griner family acknowledged the pain his family feels and said they are praying for him.
“We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers – including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time,” they said in a statement. “We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”
Griner was arrested at a Russian airport on Feb. 17 for carrying vape cartridges containing less than a gram of cannabis oil.
Whelan, meanwhile, was arrested on Dec. 28, 2018 and convicted of espionage two years later. He is currently serving a 16-year sentence for the crime, which he denies and US officials have called baseless.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” Whelan told CNN.
“My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me.”
His brother, David Whelan, said he was happy that Griner was being released in an interview with CNN, but fears what impact it would have on Paul Whelan’s mental health.
“I can’t imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point,” David Whelan said. “It’s clear that the US government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.”
The deal, which happened on the tarmac of an Abu Dhabi airport, also sparked criticism among politicians and experts who said it wasn’t a fair trade given Bout’s crimes.
Former White House national security adviser and American ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said the trade was “a surrender” that will endanger American travelers in the future.
“This is not a deal. This is not a swap. This is a surrender,” he told CBS News.
Bout, 55, was arrested in 2008 and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to Marxist terrorists in Colombia, including surface-to-air missiles and more than 20,000 AK-47 rifles.
He was known as “international arms trafficking enemy No. 1.”
The Griner family ended their statement asking for privacy as they “embark on this road to healing.”