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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Brittney Griner and the total lopsidedness of prisoner swaps with Russia

By Serge Schmemann

Reports are circulating that the United States is negotiating with Russia to exchange two Americans being held in Russian prisons for a notorious arms dealer serving time in America. The deal is totally lopsided: The two Americans — basketball star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, a security company executive — are not criminals and certainly not remotely comparable to Viktor Bout, a notorious purveyor of arms to terrorists once known as the “Merchant of Death.”

But if that’s the way to get American citizens out of a Russian prison, do it. The only caveat, an urgent one, would be to include in the deal Marc Fogel, an American teacher sentenced to an absurd 14 years in prison for taking marijuana into Russia. His infractions are similar to the ones Griner, 31, is charged with. She was detained in February with two hashish oil vape cartridges in her luggage; Fogel, 61, was carrying 14 vape cartridges of marijuana and some cannabis buds.

Both say they need cannabis for dealing with injuries and pain. But for reasons the State Department has not clarified, the U.S. government has designated Griner and Whelan as “wrongfully detained” but not Fogel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not mention this third American prisoner during a recent news conference, in which he said he intended to take up the matter of a swap for Griner and Whelan with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia.

Fogel was a popular teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow (not a U.S. Embassy employee, according to The Washington Post, as some reports described him) who’d had surgeries on his back and shoulder and a knee replacement, and was taking medical marijuana for pain. Griner, a WNBA star, testified that she used marijuana on the advice of a doctor.

Griner and Fogel were arrested on charges related to possession of the marijuana found in their luggage on arrival at the Moscow airport, and both pleaded guilty. Whelan, a former Marine who worked as director of global security and investigations for BorgWarner and had visited Russia several times, was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years for spying. He denies the charge.

The issue, however, is not whether the three American prisoners are guilty. Nor should efforts to free Americans held in repressive countries be based on their celebrity or the publicity generated by their arrests. The Russian justice system — like those in China and Iran, other countries with which the United States has organized prisoner swaps — is notoriously political, and any American imprisoned in those countries, guilty or not, is likely being held either for propaganda purposes or as hostages to exchange for imprisoned Russians.

Such swaps are hardly new, so precedent is not an issue. In a celebrated swap 60 years ago, Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy, was exchanged for Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot of a downed U-2 spy plane; among the more famous ones that followed was the exchange of Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky for a Czech caught spying for the Soviet Union.

In September 1986, when I was a correspondent in the Soviet Union, a friend and colleague, Nicholas Daniloff, who was a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, was framed by a phony dissident and arrested on charges of espionage. By no coincidence, a Soviet employee of the Soviet mission to the United Nations was arrested three days earlier on spying charges. The two were quickly swapped, and at a news conference on his release, Daniloff said that the KGB was always prepared to nab someone for such an exchange. “They could have chosen Serge Schmemann,” he said, and in fact, the decoy dissident had tried to contact me as well.

Most recently, Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine held for two years in Russia on what his family described as phony charges of assault, was swapped in April for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking.

The swaps are rarely even. Bout, the Russian who is mooted as the price for freeing the Americans, was notorious in the chaotic years after the collapse of the Soviet Union as an arms dealer to, according to U.S. prosecutors, armed groups and terrorists. Arrested in Thailand in 2008, he was extradited to the United States a couple of years later, charged with supplying arms to Colombian rebels for use against American citizens and officers, among other charges, and sentenced to 25 years in prison, which he has been serving in Illinois.

It would be painful for prosecutors and those who suffered in the violence he profited from to release him in exchange for people who should not have been imprisoned at all. Fogel, if he serves his full sentence in Russia, could well die in prison.

It may be that by agreeing to swap prisoners with autocrats, the United States encourages them to grab more hostages. But it is more important that American citizens should know that if they are imprisoned in a country with a dubious legal system, the U.S. government will do all it can to get them back. “I am an American citizen” should carry the full faith and promise of the U.S. government, no matter where in the world those words are spoken. And that is as true for Fogel as it is for Griner or Whelan.

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