In a handwritten note posted to Instagram, WNBA star Brittney Griner thanked supporters for writing to her while she was imprisoned in Russia and urged them to do the same for Paul Whelan, an American who remains incarcerated in the country.
Griner, who was released from custody after U.S. and Russian officials agreed on a prisoner swap earlier this month, said Wednesday that the letters she received during her 10-month imprisonment helped her stay optimistic throughout the ordeal.
“Your letters helped me to not lose hope during a time where I was full of regret and vulnerable in ways I could have never imagined. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Because of you I never lost hope,” she wrote.
“Your letters were also bigger than uplifting me,” she continued. “They showed me the power of collective hands. Together, we can do hard things. I’m living proof of that. My family’s whole and now, thanks to you, we are fortunate to get to spend the holidays together. However, there remain too many families with loved ones wrongfully detained.”
Griner then asked her fans to support Whelan, who’s been in Russian captivity for four years over accusations of espionage. She included a mailing address that his family has made available.
“I hope you’ll join me in writing to Paul Whelan and continuing to advocate for other Americans to be rescued and returned to their families,” she wrote of the former Marine, who began a 16-year sentence in 2020.
Griner’s imprisonment and release has renewed interest in Whelan’s case, which President Joe Biden has said is still a top priority despite the Kremlin’s refusal to negotiate over his release. Russia’s allegations of spying, which Whelan maintains are false, have made him a more important prisoner to the government, whereas Griner was only held for entering the country with vaporizer cartridges containing less than 1 gram of hash oil.
But the differences between the two cases haven’t stopped Republicans from accusing the White House of prioritizing Griner over Whelan and implying that Griner, who is Black, was less worthy of release because of her protests against racism and police brutality.
Among them is former President Donald Trump, who dismissed the newly freed Griner as “a basketball player who openly hates our Country” and called the prisoner swap an “unpatriotic embarrassment.” He also slammed the Biden administration for failing to secure Whelan’s release, even though Trump was silent on the prisoner’s situation throughout much of his own presidency.
Whelan and his family, however, have acknowledged why his case is more complicated. In a statement upon Griner’s release, his family applauded Biden for making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”