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WNBA star and two-time Olympian Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian prison in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, President Biden announced today.
If you remember, Griner was detained in Russia on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region. She testified at her trial that she had inadvertently packed cannabis oil in her luggage.
She received her sentencing in August which had her serving nine years in prison. Griner was moved to a penal colony in the Mordovia Republic last month after losing her appeal.
The prisoner exchange did not include another American, Paul Whelan, who the State Department says is also being wrongfully detained in Russia.
When speaking about the deal for Griner’s release in a press conference, President Biden said, “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
He characterized Griner as being “in good spirits. She’s relieved to finally be heading home,” noting that she would be in the U.S. within 24 hours.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said at the White House Thursday morning with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, at his side.
“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under untolerable [intolerable] circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
A U.S. official reported, “In the last 48 hours, as this has all come together, Brittney was moved from the penal colony where she was being held to Moscow. This morning, she was brought to the United Arab Emirates, where she was met by U.S. officials.”
Cherelle Griner, the WNBA star’s wife, said that she was overwhelmed with emotions, “but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.”
She added that “as we celebrate BG being home, we do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing, tremendous, their loved ones.”
Many have questioned why Griner was released while other Americans remain in Russia. Biden addressed those questions by saying, “This was not a choice of which American to bring home.”
Referring to Paul Whelan, the President said, “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Senior U.S. administration officials said that this prisoner swap came after several months of “difficult” negotiations with the Russians.
The deal apparently came together in the last couple of days and Russia would only swap the Russian arms dealer for Griner leaving Whelan behind.
In what sounds like the opposite, officials said that during their more recent engagement with Russian officials, Russia made it clear that they would only trade Griner for Bout.
Biden gave final approval for the prisoner swap enabling Griner to come home.