WNBA Star Brittney Griner Freed for Russian Arms Dealer in Prisoner Swap
WASHINGTON — Brittney Griner, the All-Star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who had been imprisoned in Russia, was released on Thursday morning in a swap for Viktor Bout, the jailed Russian arms dealer many call the “Merchant of Death.”
Griner’s release after 10 months of captivity came after lengthy negotiations and ultimately, President Joe Biden’s signing off on the prisoner exchange.
The White House announced Griner’s departure from Russia shortly after 8 a.m. Thursday, with a tweet by the president.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden said.
The tweet was accompanied by a picture of the president and Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, in the Oval Office.
Moments later, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Biden told the assembled reporters, “This is a good morning. … After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittany will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, [where] she should have been all along.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations and I want to thank all the hard working public servants across my administration, who worked tirelessly to secure her release,” the president said.
He also thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping facilitate Griner’s return, noting that her plane landed in the UAE after it left Russia.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittany and Cherelle and her entire family and her teammates back home,” Biden continued. “People all across the country have learned about Brittany’s story, advocated for her release and stood with her throughout this terrible ordeal.
“I know that support meant a lot for her family … and I’m glad to be able to say that Brittany is in good spirits and that she’s relieved to finally be heading home,” the president said.
Griner was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February after customs officials found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
She always maintained she had no intention of violating Russian laws against the import of hashish, and had merely tossed the oil in her luggage without thinking while she packed her bag.
At the time she was playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a women’s basketball team that competes in the Russian Premier League.
Biden also asked that Griner be afforded all the “space, privacy and time” she needs to recover from being wrongfully detained and “losing months of her life.”
Griner’s lawyers have described her incarceration in a Russian penal colony in harrowing terms. Earlier this fall one of those attorneys said she was allowed outside just once a day to walk for an hour in a small courtyard.
The rest of the time, she was confined to a cramped cell with two cellmates. And when she slept she did so in a makeshift bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 body.
“Brittany … endured needless trauma … mistreatment … and exhibited characteristic grit and incredible dignity during her show trial in Russia,” the president said. “She represents the best of America.”
He noted that when the basketball star wrote to him after her conviction last summer, she didn’t ask for special treatment of her case.
“All she requested was, ‘Please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.’
“We never forgot about you, Brittany,” the president said.
Paul Whelan, another high-profile American held prisoner, was not released on Thursday despite months of efforts by U.S. diplomats to include him as part of the deal with the Russians for the exchange with Bout.
Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and corporate security executive, was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and convicted in June 2020 on espionage charges.
The White House has always maintained that the charges were manufactured by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Despite the alleged lack of validity in the charges, Russian officials refused to include Whelan in the prisoner swap.
In the end, the exchange would be one-for-one, much like the prisoner exchange last April that brought home Trevor Reed, another former Marine, in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot.
Reed had been held for two years on what his family maintained were false charges of assault.
Speaking of Whelan’s situation, Biden said Griner’s release instead of his “was not a choice of which American to bring home.”
“Sadly, and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittany’s,” he said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up.
“We will never give up,” the president said. “We remain in close touch with Paul’s family, and my thoughts and prayers are with them today. We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release. I guarantee that to the family. And I urge Russia to do the same and to ensure Paul’s health and humane treatment is maintained until we are able to bring him home.”
Following the president to the microphone Cherelle Griner also spoke of Whelan.
“Today, my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole,” she said. “Though Brittney is not her to say this, I will gladly speak on her behalf and mine when I say we remain committed to working to bring every American home, including Paul.
“His family is in our hearts today,” she continued. “We do understand that there are still people out there enduring what I endured the last nine months, tremendously missing their loved one.”
Bout was convicted in 2011 by a New York jury on four counts that included conspiring to kill American citizens.
Prosecutors at the time said he had agreed to sell antiaircraft weapons to drug enforcement informants who were posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Near the end of his remarks, the president urged all Americans traveling overseas to review the State Department’s travel advisories before leaving home, including those that warn of a risk of being wrongfully detained by a foreign government.
“It is a priority of my administration … to bring home every American who continues to endure such an injustice,” he said. “We also want to prevent any more American families from suffering this pain of separation.
“Make no mistake,” he added, “[working to free] detained Americans is not easy. Negotiations are always difficult. There are never any guarantees.”