By Karen Stokes
WNBA star Brittney Griner is free Thursday after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a Russian penal colony in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a senior administration official.
Griner has been released after 294 days in a Russian prison and is on her way back to the United States, President Joe Biden said on Thursday, ending what he called months of “hell.”
Griner, 32, a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on Feb. 17. Griner had been detained on drug smuggling charges. She testified she had inadvertently packed cannabis oil that was found in her luggage at an airport and was sentenced to nine years in prison in August.
Talks to secure her release were complicated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The swap took place at Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates, Russian news agencies said.
Griner was then flown to a military medical facility in San Antonio for health evaluation, according to NBC News.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances,” Biden told reporters at the White House, adding she would arrive within the next 24 hours. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose imprisonment on drug charges brought attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
The fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”
Biden also stated that Whelan’s family was informed prior to Griner’s release that Whelan would not be part of the exchange.
Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.
“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.