- Brittney Griner returned home from Russian detainment in a December prisoner exchange.
- Fellow wrongfully detained American Paul Whelan famously did not return home as part of the deal.
- Elizabeth Whelan, Paul’s sister, slammed those who “pit us and the Griners against each other.”
Not everyone was happy to see Brittney Griner return from Russia.
The WNBA superstar came home from 10 months detained abroad because of a December prisoner exchange between the Biden administration and the Kremlin. Paul Whelan, a fellow American who has been wrongfully detained in Russia since 2018, was not freed in the deal despite the US government’s attempts to negotiate for the simultaneous release of both US citizens.
While President Joe Biden was adamant that “this was not a choice of which American to bring home,” as he said upon announcing Griner’s homecoming to the public, countless naysayers criticized the deal as one that prioritized the famous basketball player over a Marine veteran.
Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, told Insider that the “partisanship that came along was really disturbing to our family.”
“There’s been a lot of partisan stuff on Twitter and in the media about how Biden made a choice to bring Brittney home and not Paul,” Whelan said. “That was consciously set up by the Russians to cause division. And it continues to cause division. We need to keep the focus on the people who are actually doing the wrongdoing, and that’s the Kremlin and Putin.”
In the years since Paul was first arrested in Russia, the Whelan family has come to believe that Putin more or less holds US citizens for ransom in order to “sow as much chaos as possible” in the United States, Whelan said.
So when Griner was arrested in February 2022 and made into a political pawn by Russia, Elizabeth Whelan and her family realized that critics were playing into Putin’s hand by “trying to pit us and the Griners against each other” she said.
The Whelans collectively resolved to support any action that resulted in a wrongful detainee returning to the US — even if it wasn’t Paul. The Griners did the same, cementing a promise that the families wouldn’t be divided by Twitter trolls or pundits promoting partisan agendas.
“I’ve always felt that families should try to support each other, because we’re the only people who really understand what the other families are going through,” Whelan said.
As fall gave way to winter and news of a potential deal to bring Griner home grew louder, Whelan understood that a potential trade that included her brother in addition to the two-time Olympic gold medalist was unrealistic. As Biden explained in a December press conference, the Kremlin viewed “Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s” and placed a higher premium on his return.
The president could either bring Griner home alone, or leave both Americans overseas.
Even though Griner has ardently advocated for Americans, including Whelan, who remain wrongfully detained overseas, skeptics have characterized her return as a betrayal to those very same people she aims to help.
“There are folks who are going to delight in making Brittney a partisan issue for years to come, and Paul the same way,” Whelan said. “People who have never been through these detentions are willing to say awful things about people who have basically been prisoners of war. It’s a horrible practice.”