News of WNBA player Brittney Griner’s release from Russian custody has raised questions and concerns about the US’s negotiating policy as other US citizens, including Paul Whelan and Mark Fogel, remain in Russia.
“Like Brittney’s family, Mark’s family knows the horrors of their loved one being detained in a foreign country, unfairly tried despite all legal efforts, and sentenced to an unjustified length of time during the worst diplomatic relations between Russia and America in decades. “said Sasha Phillips, an attorney for Mark Fogel’s family. According to her, “they are happy to have Brittney back and encouraged that her freedom was secured through diplomatic efforts.”
Fogel was arrested in August 2021 for trying to enter Russia with half an ounce of medical marijuana prescribed for chronic pain in the United States. After an interminable wait for trial, Fogel pleaded guilty to 14 years in prison for drug possession. The Russian authorities sent him to a hard labor colony, at which time his family lost track of him. U.S. officials said Fogel was not considered “wrongfully detained” and therefore was not eligible for prisoner swaps without explanation.
Fogel’s attorney said the family is “disappointed that Mark will remain in Russia to serve an extreme sentence for possession of less than an ounce of medical marijuana.” “The family is also disappointed that Mark, along with Paul Whelan, was not mentioned during President Biden’s press conference when he promised to bring home other Americans who have been wrongfully detained.”
GEN. PETREUS ON GRINER: RUSSIA’S ‘BLOOD ON HIS HANDS,’ VICTOR BOUTH ‘BLOOD ON HIS HANDS’
US authorities released Griner 10 months after Russian police arrested him on drug possession charges for vape cartridges containing cannabis-derived oils. His arrest, which occurred just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, was a “celebrity” as the Biden administration made a major effort to secure his release. Biden announced Griner’s release in a tweet that included photos of him in the Oval Office with Vice President Kamala Harris and Griner’s wife, Cheryl Griner, saying, “He’s safe. He’s on a plane. He’s going home.”
The Fogel family is happy to see Griner “free, safe and on his way to be reunited with his family,” Phillips said, hoping the success of Griner’s release will give “a boost” to the U.S. other Americans, including Mark Fogel.
“This is very important as Mark’s health continues to deteriorate without the medical attention he needs for his condition – Mark has a significant medical history of spinal disease which requires constant monitoring, regular doctor visits and access to appropriate emergency services requires,” explained Philips.
However, Griner’s release came at the cost of Victor Booth, a Russian prisoner known as the “Merchant of Death.” Authorities finally arrested Booth in 2008 in a joint operation between US authorities, Interpol and the Kingdom of Thailand. Bout worked as an arms dealer, sometimes supplying both sides of the conflict to make money. Some critics say Griner’s trade for Bout was extremely ambiguous, painting a dangerous picture for Russia and other countries, which may see celebrities arrested on trumped-up charges as perfect bargaining chips for valuable political prisoners.
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-PA, worked with the State Department to secure Fogel’s release and lamented that the Pittsburgh native was not mentioned by the Biden administration when discussing Griner’s release. He called it “ridiculous” that the U.S. ended Griner’s “one-on-one” trade with Bout and that the U.S. had “lost all leverage” in other deals while dealing with Bout’s alleged crimes.
UKRAINE CALLS US TO BRING BACK TRIBUNAL TO TRIAL KREMLIN FOR WAR CRIMES
“We must not forget that Victor Booth has American blood on his hands,” Reschenthaler said. “This is a guy who sells guns and weapons to people who use those weapons to kill Americans, and he’s an arms smuggler around the world who has sold weapons to both sides of certain conflicts that have cost tens of thousands of lives. “
“So now we’re going to trade that guy for one. It’s ridiculous. It’s so weird,” the congressman said.
A National Security Council spokesman said officials were focused on how to get Americans home because “Russia and other countries were already willing to wrongfully detain US citizens.”
“The Biden administration has expanded the range of tools available to the US government to do so, including imposing significant costs and consequences, such as sanctions and visa bans, on governments and non-state actors involved in hostage-taking and illegal detention,” the spokesman said. The State Department added that it has begun to highlight travel risks for countries that engage in the practice.
“As illegal arrests around the world and the use of hostage diplomacy continue, the U.S. government must be more assertive,” said David Whelan, a former Marine who has been in Russian custody since 2018. A statement following Griner’s release. “If bad actors like Russia try to target innocent Americans, the U.S. must respond quickly, directly, and be prepared in advance.”
RUSSIAN ‘MERCHANT OF DEATH’ VICTOR BOUTH WHO WILL REPLACE BRITT FOR GRINER?
Rebekah Koffler, president of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting and a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, said hundreds of Americans remain in prisons in Russia and, like Griner, have no path to freedom.
“Life in any Russian prison is deplorable, but conditions in a labor camp are inhumane,” explained Koffler. “Prisoners live in overcrowded barracks, sometimes with 50-60 inmates, with no food and generally unsanitary conditions.”
“Brittney Griner might be treated well because she’s famous, she wasn’t physically abusive,” he said. “The guards may have received special instructions to ensure his safety because he was negotiating with Putin. [but] An ordinary American, teacher Mark Fogel, is not very valuable to the Russians. Perhaps he was not given any special treatment and was not protected from violence by other prisoners.
Koffler speculated that Fogel did not agree to the Griner-Bout exchange for two reasons, mainly because the Russians wanted to exchange the “optics” one by one, and to avoid setting any precedent; and the other is to keep the likes of Fogel and Whelan “in reserve” for another exchange.
“Victor Bout is of great value to Russia because he is a GRU employee with direct ties to Putin, but Fogel’s value is also non-zero because he is an American,” Koffler said. “The Russians use collateral diplomacy as a form of statesmanship. They know it works, and President Biden just proved it works. Biden vindicated himself to Putin to score political points.”
Fox News’ Ashley Pope contributed to this report.