Charles Barkley happy for Brittney Griner’s Russia release, feels for still-imprisoned Paul Whelan
PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns legend and NBA analyst Charles Barkley is happy fellow Valley basketball icon Brittney Griner was released from Russia in a prisoner swap, but feels for the American who was also rumored to be a part of the exchange.
Barkley told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Gaydos and Chad on Thursday he has sympathy for Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive and ex-Marine jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.
Whelan wasn’t part of the exchange that let notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout go free.
“Obviously really good news on Brittney, the NBA family and the WNBA family, but obviously I think we were all kind of surprised and shocked that Mr. Whelan wasn’t part of the deal,” Barkley said.
“I think that caught everybody off guard to be honest with you.”
Barkley, who doesn’t have a personal relationship with Griner, said the Mercury star shouldn’t have received a nine-year sentence for drug charges.
Whelan has been jailed for nearly four years in Russia. He told CNN on Wednesday, “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release.”
“For me, to get nine years over some stuff that isn’t even a big deal — and I don’t know all the facts of Mr. Whelan’s case — I think that people need to realize even though we got some issues and problems here, there’s nothing like the United States of America,” Barkley said.
Barkley expects Griner to face criticism nationally, especially since Whelan remains in Russa and Bout is free.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, whose nine-month arrest made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad.
Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
“It’s just an awful situation there,” Barkley said. “We’re happy as an NBA and WNBA family, but we know we put a really bad dude back on the street and then there’s a guy who was a former Marine.
“So I don’t think there’s anything other than being happy for Brittney. It was a tough situation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.